Wicomico Considers Dispensary System Reform

SALISBURY – Discussions on the county’s dispensary system and businesses’ ability to purchase liquor from distributors highlighted this week’s council meeting.

In a work session held Tuesday, County Executive Julie Giordano and Director of Administration Bunky Luffman came before the Wicomico County Council with a proposal to reform the county’s liquor dispensary system. Giordano told council members this week the administration was proposing enabling legislation that would give the county the power to decide the future of the dispensary system.

“We tried to figure out who the dispensary answers to, and the answer is no one except the comptroller,” she said. “So the county council, county executive, no one in the county has any control over the dispensary … One thing we knew is we wanted was local control.”

Under Wicomico County’s current system, bars and restaurants can only purchase their alcohol from the county’s liquor dispensaries, and shops are prohibited from selling hard liquor.

But Giordano told county leaders this week her administration was hoping to change that by allowing bars and restaurants to purchase from private distributors rather than the county’s dispensary and issuing a total of 10 privately held liquor licenses, with each councilmanic district allowed a maximum of two. She added, however, that her plan calls for keeping the county’s dispensaries, which bring in roughly $1 million in revenue each year to Wicomico County.

“One concern we heard was we don’t want a liquor store on every corner, and I agree with that, so we are looking at having 10 additional licenses, two per councilmanic district …,” she explained. “We would not be closing the dispensary, so they would still be available.”

To do so, Giordano said the county must seek enabling legislation in Annapolis that would give Wicomico County the ability to create a new model for alcohol sales. Wicomico remains one of only two counties in the state that operates a liquor dispensary system.

“What we are asking for is for you to make the decision as to how to move forward …,” she said. “We are trying to put the power in your hands, as opposed to the comptroller’s.”

During public comments, Brew River Managing Partner Justin Schaub encouraged council members to consider changes that would allow restaurants and bars to purchase alcohol directly from distributors. He noted the restaurant is currently paying 15% more to purchase alcohol solely from the county’s dispensary.

“For us, with the rising wage increases that are coming down the pike and the rising cost of every input to our business, by being able to buy direct from our distributors it gives us a buffer to absorb some of these expenses,” he said.

Tom Knorr, owner of Southern Boys Concepts restaurants, said it has taken years for the county to address its dispensary system. He argued it has put bars and restaurants in Wicomico at a competitive disadvantage.

“For years we didn’t have a problem because Worcester County was run the same way,” he told council members. “Now they are able to buy direct and we’re paying 15% more on every bottle of liquor we buy … We have to absorb that cost to compete, which doesn’t make sense.”

A representative with Buster’s Wine and Spirits said he held one of only three private licenses in Wicomico County. He questioned how the county’s plans for 10 new licenses would impact his business.

“How is the county’s issue about the dispensary going to affect my license and the other two private licenses in this county?” he said. “I represent over 50% of wholesale accounts in this county.”

Cheers owner Mike Vizard, however, said he advocated for the enabling legislation, as it would allow him to sell not only beer and wine, but liquor as well.

“It is convenient to buy beer and wine,” he said. “It is not convenient to buy liquor.”

During Tuesday’s work session, Council President John Cannon asked what language the administration planned to include in the bill. He said those details could ease the concerns of citizens and business owners.

“They would certainly want that clarification …,” he said. “There could be some real conflicts.”

For her part, Councilwoman Shanie Shields advocated for public input on the proposed legislation. She noted, however, that she had concerns about the enabling legislation.

“We do not need any more liquor stores in this community,” she said.

Councilman James Winn said he supported giving people options as to where they can purchase alcohol.

“I don’t think the government should be in charge of your choice on where you get liquor,” he said.

Councilman Joe Holloway questioned how the county would award the 10 privately held licenses being proposed. He said he wanted answers before the council sent a letter of support for the enabling legislation.

“I have no problem with bars and restaurants that want to buy from the distributors, but I really have reservations with where we are going with these 10 licenses, how they are going to be distributed …,” he said. “We don’t have that answer.”

Ultimately, council members directed administrative staff to draft the legislative bill and present it at the council’s next meeting in February.

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.