Md. law used to fight huge liquor outlet Opponents say anti-chain statute would be violated

Long Gate project targeted

Baptists join owners of small stores against Total Beverage

December 05, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The unlikeliest of allies -- a band of owners of small liquor stores in the county and some teetotaling Baptists -- have come up with a new weapon in their effort to prevent an enormous beer and wine store from moving to the new Long Gate shopping center: state liquor laws.

Their coalition, which until recently had argued that Howard County does not need a beer and wine store the size of an ice rink, now is saying that the proposed Total Beverage store is tied to two Maryland stores near Washington.

Opening the store in Long Gate would violate state laws against liquor store chains, the store's opponents say. The law limits liquor license holders to one store in the state.

Corporate records presented this week to the Howard County Liquor Board connect Total Beverage to two Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery stores in Rockville and Takoma Park, where beer and wine are sold.

A spokesman for Total Beverage's parent, the Dart Group Corp. in Prince George's County, said yesterday that the connection was not direct enough to disqualify Total Beverage from obtaining a Maryland liquor license and that Dart was considering severing its ties with Shoppers Food Warehouse anyway.

More detailed, written arguments concerning the issue are to be submitted to the Liquor Board tomorrow. A fifth and perhaps final hearing on Total Beverage's liquor license will be held Monday night. Final arguments are to be heard Monday, but the case might not conclude until early next year.

"I think the legal argument is the major issue now," said the Rev. Bruce Romoser, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, who has opposed the warehouse-style store on moral grounds. Romoser's Ellicott City church is across Route 103 from Long Gate.

At stake is how Howard County residents buy their beer and wine -- and perhaps the financial health of dozens of small liquor stores in the county.

Total Beverage's proposed 15,000-square-foot store would complete the retail development of Long Gate, a warehouse-style "power center" near Route 103 and U.S. 29. The shopping center has Target, Safeway and Barnes & Noble stores, among others.

The beer and wine outlet would be similar to Total Beverage's three other stores in Virginia, which offer 500 varieties of beer and 5,000 varieties of wine.

At those stores, prices are generally lower than in other outlets in the area, but only slightly, according to a July survey of Northern Virginia stores conducted by The Sun. Interviews with patrons at that time indicated that they shopped at the store mainly for its vast selections.

Total Beverage's plans are in line with the wider trend in recent years toward retail power centers -- collections of large, warehouse-style retailers that attract consumers with big selections and competitive prices -- along Columbia's fringes.

David Carney, Total Beverage's local attorney, said Howard consumers should have a similar opportunity to buy beer and wine. "It just seems to me that the public is entitled to it," he said.

If it opens in Long Gate, the Total Beverage store probably would drive some of the county's almost 40 smaller liquor stores out of business. "It would be just a matter of how long I could hang on," said Kelly Snovell of Kelly's Liquors in Ellicott City.

Opponents of the proposed Long Gate outlet say that even though Total Beverage's Virginia stores do not constitute a Maryland chain, the other stores give it advantages of scale over the smaller, independent Howard County stores.

For example, Total Beverage buys large, expensive newspaper advertisements for its three Virginia stores. It would only have to add "New Location: Howard County" to the ads.

Total Beverage officials say Maryland purchasing laws would mute any advantages the Virginia stores offer. Under state laws, Total Beverage would have to buy its beer and wine at the same prices the smaller stores do.

"Any deals, if you will, are available to everyone," said Total Beverage President Bob Ampula.

The coalition of owners of small liquor stores and Baptists began several months ago when Snovell visited Romoser, the Bethel Baptist minister, to ask whether he would mobilize his church members, Romoser said.

Romoser, who advocates abstaining from alcohol, said he would have done that even without Snovell's visit.

In the past, the church has asked the Liquor Board not to grant sales licenses to some of the stores with whom it is now linked in the fight against the Total Beverage proposal. Romoser now refers to the small liquor stores as "the little guys."

At the four hearings on Total Beverage's license, the Bethel churchgoers have sat in one section of the audience, the liquor store owners in another. There has been little dialogue between the two groups, and at times they have shown different styles.

For example, at the last hearing, held Monday night, liquor store owner Bill Boarman found himself under intense questioning by Carney, the Total Beverage attorney.

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