Our Views: Janesville should enact compromises in liquor sales

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Ideally, to foster economic development, the Janesville City Council would drop its population-based quota for issuing Class A liquor licenses and its requirement that all licensed stores sell alcohol in departments separate from other products.

Those ideas, proposed by city staff, didn’t fly with most council members. Ordinance changes that dilute those proposals are expected to return to the council this month. Given the council’s resistance to free-market policies, the changes are reasonable compromises.

The current ordinance allows one Class A retail license for every 3,500 residents. All 19 are in use. Ryan Garcia, economic development coordinator, surveyed 10 cities with similar populations and found only three with quotas. Janesville’s is the most restrictive.

The latest proposal would use the state’s annual city population count instead of the 10-year census to set Class A license limits for groceries and liquor stores. That, at least, lets the city respond more quickly to population growth. Also, under the proposed change, a business could petition the council to add another license if it makes a compelling case that it would add economic value.

The separation rule—driving up construction and staffing costs and inconveniencing customers—would be relaxed only for retailers whose primary business is selling groceries. Gas stations and pharmacies couldn’t tap this privilege. It would allow alcohol in up to an 80-square-foot space.

That change would accommodate niche retailers such as microbrewery suppliers and boutique grocers. For example, it satisfies the desires of Basics Cooperative Natural Foods, which wants to sell organic beer and wine in a small part of its store.

It also satisfies Sarah Johnson, head of Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, which fears that dropping the separate sales rule would lead to more underage drinking.

That concern is questionable. It assumes that without separate sales areas, stores would be more likely to sell to teens and underage adults. If they did, that would be a policing issue.

It’s not the city’s job to protect businesses from competition. Some residents point to Beloit’s Bushel & Peck’s and wish downtown Janesville could attract such a diner and grocery. Janesville’s limits also might discourage national retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.

The city has taken reasonable, measured steps in recent years to relax rules governing alcohol sales and drinking in parks and other public places. It made the most recent change last month when it dropped the expensive and time-consuming requirement that downtown festivals fence in drinkers.

Requiring separate sales areas and continuing the city’s arbitrary limit on the number of alcohol licenses still could hinder economic development. Given council reluctance to let market forces dictate the number of liquor stores, however, it’s best to swallow these proposed compromises and move on to Janesville’s many other pressing issues.

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper’s editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.

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