UPDATED 1:30 p.m.
During the 2011 campaign for state liquor privatization, supporters said it would keep liquor out of gas stations, mini-marts and convenience stores. But opponents called voters’ attention to what they called the “mini-mart loophole.” More than 900 small outlets could pop up under that loophole, they claimed, including in places like Seattle and Tacoma.
As we pointed out at the time, both were exaggerations, but opponents in particular were essentially making up facts. Their conclusion was based on guesswork about what the Liquor Control Board would do.
Today, more than a year later, the liquor board revealed what it wants to do.
The fact is, Initiative 1183 does limit outlets to 10,000 square feet or more — with two notable exceptions. One is for former state stores and contract stores. The other is for areas — “trade areas” in the parlance of the initiative — where no big store has opened.
The board today proposed a definition for trade area that would let those stores set up shop 20 miles or more from existing stores. (Compare that to the opponents’ guess of 1 mile in cities and 5 miles in rural areas).
The definition would allow roughly 20 stores, the board figures.
There are 1,428 stores around the state where customers can buy hard liquor, more than four times the 329 that existed before the law passed.
“Access obviously isn’t an issue” statewide, liquor board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said. “But it is an issue in some of these areas that we’re going to try to serve.”
Foster and Ruthann Kurose voted to propose the rule, while Chris Marr was absent. Now a public process starts that will give people the chance to weigh in with written comments through April 24 and a public hearing on that day. The board would finalize the rule on May 1 and it would take effect June 1.
Many stores have applied for licenses that would not qualify under a 20-mile buffer.
UPDATE: There’s criticism coming from both sides.
The Washington Food Industry Association, which represents small grocery stores, says 20 miles is too much. Lobbyist Jan Gee said the board has been reasonable about taking new information into account, so she would bring board members market research showing how business owners decide if an area is underpopulated enough to open a store.
“That’s why we have privatization, because the consumer said, this is ridiculous,” she said. “So now we’re creating pockets of the state that don’t have the convenience the public voted for.”
On the other side are the people who bought the rights to the former state stores at auction for a collective $31 million, and who want the greatest possible distance from competitors paying less than $200 for a license.
“I am 100 percent positive that the auction would not have gone at that level” had owners know about all the competition they could face, said Tacoma store owner David Cho. A 20-mile radius “would only harm their business,” he said. Many stores have gone out of business.
The president of the group, Jasmel Sangha, said the buffer zone should apply not only to stores, but also to the locations of auction winners who closed their stores or weren’t able to open them in the first place.