Proposal would increase retail liquor licenses

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, March 23, 2014

Three Janesville City Council members disagree so strongly with a proposal to increase the number of Class A alcohol licenses that they tried to stop a public hearing on the issue.

The unsuccessful maneuver at the March 10 council meeting has not happened in council chambers in at least 16 years.

City economic development staff suggested eliminating or amending the existing quota to remove barriers for new business. No Class A licenses are currently available. A retailer must have a Class A license to sell packaged alcohol.

Councilman Brian Fitzgerald at the March 10 meeting said increasing the number of licenses would put existing merchants out of business. He especially complained about “big-box stores.”

DuWayne Severson and Sam Liebert also voted against introducing the proposed change.

Fitzgerald even voted against approving the minutes of the city's alcohol advisory committee meeting that included a positive recommendation on the change.

Four council members—Kathy Voskuil, Jim Farrell, Doug Marklein and Matt Kealy—voted to introduce the proposal, and a public hearing is scheduled Monday.

The city's alcohol license advisory committee recommended 5-0 that the quota be amended to one license per 2,500 residents compared to the current one per 3,500 residents.

The city now has 19 licenses. The change would make another five available.

In addition, staff proposes:

--The city use annual population estimates rather than 10-year census figures.

--The council create a process to issue temporary licenses on an individual basis if no licenses are available.

The current quota does not allow economic development staff to compete for new developments on an equal basis with other communities, and going after such projects is a stated goal of the council, according to a city memo.

The quota has served to either delay or deter potential new developments or expansion of existing businesses, staff said.

Of 11 cities surveyed, Janesville was one of four that has a quota. Its quota is also the most restrictive.

For example, without the change, Meijer, a super center that just announced plans to open in Janesville, would not be able to get a license to sell package alcohol.

Fitzgerald said he is concerned because alcohol sales represent a fixed amount.

 “I just don't see spreading these sales out over more licenses makes sense,” Fitzgerald said at the last council meeting.

“If you understand business, if you lose 10 to 20 percent of your sales, you're not profitable anymore. You'll go out of business.

 “I fear what would happen, several big box stores—Target, Pick 'n Save, Wal-Mart, whoever—will get these licenses.”

Wal-Mart and Pick 'n Save already have liquor licenses.

“The way they operate, they will lower the price until all the local vendors are out of business, and then they charge whatever they want.

 “Quite frankly, I think Wal-Mart, Pick 'n Save, these larger stores, they're doing just fine without alcohol licenses. … I'm not anxious to put local vendors out of business by watering down the dollar amount of their sales just so we can have more licenses.

“I'm tired of big box stores,” Fitzgerald said. “I just got my gut full. They're just running everybody out of business. Pretty soon the downtown is going to be empty.

 “A change like this needs careful consideration. It can be catastrophic for these businesses and local merchants who have been here for years and years.”

Councilman Matt Kealy, who is also on the alcohol license advisory committee, noted most peer communities have no quota.

Kealy wondered where Fitzgerald would stop in protecting existing businesses.

 “As far as economic development goes, do we not allow new home builders in town, restaurants, taverns, new car dealerships, because they're taking the same pie and spreading it out?” he asked.

“I just don't think we really need more liquor stores and more liquor licenses,” Fitzgerald said. “I don't see this as economic development at all.”

Said Kealy: “Except for the person who wants to build a new establishment and sell liquor.”

Kealy also noted competition is good for the consumer.

“I think we've got plenty of competition,” Fitzgerald said. … “I certainly don't think we need any more alcoholics."

Severson made the motion to deny the introduction of the proposed ordinance, and Fitzgerald seconded, saying: “I guess I would just like to go through the public hearing and get a little more input.”

At that point, President Kathy Voskuil noted that denying the introduction of the ordinance also meant there would be no public hearing.

“Oh, well, that's fine, too,” Fitzgerald said.

Said Severson: “I guess I'm always concerned that we're looking to just throw more alcohol out there, more opportunities to buy it … I just question how much more business can be created.

“I'm not sure I agree with the correlation between home building and new business,” he said. “There's only so much you can drink.”

Liebert said he agreed with Fitzgerald and Severson.

“I just don't think more alcohol licenses are going to somehow magically make jobs fall from the sky.”

He did say he might support the process that would allow the council to consider licenses on an individual basis if a business was to create 50 jobs, for example.

Marklein said he would look forward to the public hearing so he could make his decision after hearing public comments.

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