Wine Sales To Continue At Wicomico Liquor Dispensaries

SALISBURY – A discussion on eliminating wine sales at county liquor dispensaries stalled last week after a meeting with board representatives.

Citing a lack of complaints from private businesses, and concerns that removing wine products would lead to layoffs, the Wicomico County Council on Tuesday agreed not to move forward at this time with an effort to terminate wine sales at local liquor dispensaries. The consensus came during a meeting with the county’s Liquor Control Board to discuss the council’s request.

“I think this warrants much more discussion,” said Councilwoman Nicole Acle.

In late October, the council agreed to reach out to the liquor control board requesting Wicomico liquor dispensaries refrain from selling wine effective Jan. 1, 2021.

Councilman John Cannon reiterated to board members this week that he had received complaints from businesses about wine sales in liquor dispensaries, which had precipitated Tuesday’s discussion.

“There’s a lot of pushback from people that certainly don’t feel as though the government should be in the business of competing with public enterprise, and I understand that and I advocate for that,” he said. “But without getting ahead of ourselves, the reason we brought this up was because we were also getting complaints from businesses.”

Established by the state in 1947, the liquor control board operates three stores in Wicomico County. Profits made from the local dispensaries provide the county with a steady revenue stream each year. In fiscal year 2020, for example, Wicomico brought in $899,600 from the dispensaries.

By way of background, state legislation passed in 2000 gave dispensaries the legal right to sell beer and wine. But in 2008, the county and the liquor dispensary reached an agreement that its stores would not sell beer moving forward.

But when asked this week if the Liquor Control Board could refrain from selling wine, Board Chair Don Ewalt advised against it.

“After much discussion, we believe that this would not be in the best interest of the taxpayers of Wicomico County …,” he said, reading from a statement. “I’d like to remind the people of Wicomico County that Wicomico County Liquor Control Board is self-sustaining. Our employees are not county employees. We’re responsible for paying our employees, our leases, utilities and store repairs. We provide our full-time employees with health insurance and a retirement program. A reduction in inventory would require a loss of some employees. I think you would agree this is not a good time to lose your job.”

Ewalt said the liquor control board had provided the county with $7 million in revenue since 2008 and that demand for wine sales at the local dispensaries still existed, though the selection was not as large.

At its South Salisbury location, for example, General Manager Justin Collis noted square footage dedicated to wine had been reduced by more than 400 square feet to make space for more popular malt-based beverages, including White Claw and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

Cannon told the board this week he was concerned the dispensaries had an unfair advantage over other stores, as they are not required to pay local income tax. And while Tuesday’s meeting focused on wine sales, he said a larger discussion was Wicomico’s removal from the liquor business entirely.

“The liquor issue is probably for another year,” he said. “But we were hoping to come to some consensus where we could stop with the competition on the smaller products.”

Cannon said the goal was to create a memorandum of understanding between the county and the liquor control board, instead of seeking state legislation to eliminate wine sales. Ewalt, however, shared his concerns.

“If we considered dropping wine, we would lose at least four employees,” he said. “We just don’t want to go through that.”

While Councilman Joe Holloway acknowledged receiving a complaint about wine sales at the local dispensaries, he said he had not received many.

“You really need more people complaining than we’ve had complain. I’ve really only heard from one person who was not happy about this …,” he said. “We cannot tell you not to sell wine. You’re a state entity. You were asked to come today to be asked not to sell wine. I don’t think we can order you.”

Holloway said that while he supported the elimination of wine sales and the eventual privatization of the county’s liquor dispensary, the county had no way of replacing lost revenues. He added he would like to see a grassroots effort among businesses before the county sought state legislation to eliminate wine sales.

“Until I hear more people complaining I’m not apt to do that,” he said.

Other councilmembers agreed.

“We’re not there yet,” Councilman Bill McCain said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.