Liquor panel says 'no' to mega-store Total Beverage sought location in Long Gate center

Small stores hail ruling

Decision bucks trend of outlets moving to 'power centers'

December 19, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

For beer and wine at least, there will be no power shopping in Howard County.

In a 4-0 vote late Tuesday night, the county Liquor Board rejected a bid by Total Beverage to build a beer and wine store the size of an ice rink in the new Long Gate retail center just north of Columbia on U.S. 29.

The Liquor Board's decision bucks a retail shift in the county that has consumers buying everything from chain saws to pantyhose at warehouse-style stores in "power centers" along Columbia's perimeter.

A final, written decision on the Total Beverage case is expected to be released early next year, but the Liquor Board made its intentions known during its Tuesday meeting.

"The store is larger than what is needed to meet unmet need," said Liquor Board Chairman C. Vernon Gray, speaking the complicated language of state liquor regulations designed to promote "temperance."

The Liquor Board essentially decided that Total Beverage, which owns three huge outlets in Northern Virginia, never proved that residents are clamoring to buy from a store offering 500 choices of beer and 5,000 types of wine. Under the Liquor Board's reasoning, consumers can simply shop among the county's nearly 40 smaller stores.

The owners of small liquor stores were pleased with the vote.

"I think the decision was a Christmas present we will never forget," said Al Robinson, owner of Meadowridge Wine and Spirits in Elkridge, who feared that Total Beverage could have put him out of business in six to eight months.

The Liquor Board vote is expected to end up 4-1. Board member Charles C. Feaga did not attend the Tuesday meeting because he had the flu. But he said yesterday he will vote to grant Total Beverage a sales license.

"I see it as a convenience for people," Feaga said in a phone interview. "I just feel like competition is good for America."

But the owners of small liquor stores in the county said Total Beverage, with its Virginia stores, would have had several unfair advantages. Because of its income from those stores, Total Beverage could have operated at a loss here for several years while pulling customers from Howard's other stores, Robinson said.

In addition, Total Beverage could use its large amount of newspaper advertising in the Washington area to promote its new store at little additional cost.

Also opposing Total Beverage were members of Bethel Baptist Church, who objected on moral grounds. The church sits across Route 103 from the proposed store. Its members joined in opposition with some of the same owners of small liquor stores they had opposed in previous years, when those owners sought their own sales licenses.

"What brought us together was you were either for it [Total Beverage] or against it," said the Rev. Bruce Romoser, pastor of Bethel Baptist.

Total Beverage officials said Liquor Board members never appreciated that the store could have attracted $6 million worth of business from Howard and its surrounding counties.

"They didn't deal with the realities of the marketplace," said David Carney, an attorney for Total Beverage.

Instead, Carney said, the Liquor Board members used their traditional index of liquor store need: Did residents in the immediate area want it?

But Total Beverage projected itself as a different kind of store, drawing consumers from as far away as 25 miles to its vast selection. "They missed that completely," Carney said of the Liquor Board members. "They just saw the thing as bigger than they wanted to handle."

Robert F. Ampula, president of Total Beverage, said consumers want to shop at large stores, whether for beer or cat toys. "We're the future of retailing, like Target, PetsMart and stores like that," Ampula said.

His company still would like to open a store in Maryland, Ampula said, but he fears the opposition in Howard from liquor store owners and the county Liquor Board has set a precedent.

"There's a road map for anyone who wants to defeat us," he said.

Total Beverage apparently would have been the second-largest liquor store in the state. The recently opened Beltway Liquors in Baltimore County is believed to be larger.

During the hearing Tuesday -- the sixth in the Total Beverage case -- Liquor Board members also addressed a number of complicated legal issues, including whether Total Beverage is a chain store.

Maryland law bars chain stores from holding liquor licenses. Total Beverage operates three stores in Virginia and has corporate ties to two beer and wine stores in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The Liquor Board -- made up of Howard's elected County Council members -- was split on the chain store issue. Gray and fellow Democrat Mary C. Lorsung said Total Beverage was not a chain. Republicans Darrel E. Drown and Dennis R. Schrader said it was.

As for its ties to the two Maryland stores, the Liquor Board members said they were concerned only with how many sales licenses the company had within Howard County.

In the end, though, this was not a determining issue, as the Liquor Board simply rejected the need for the store in Howard.

Drown said it is up to the Liquor Board to decide the local need for a new liquor store based on the state's overall goal of promoting temperance. "Society has said we want to treat alcohol [stores] different than anything else," Drown said.

The ruling means that the developers of the newly opened Long Gate Center will have to find another tenant to fill its last vacancy. Target, Safeway and Barnes & Noble are among the stores that have opened there.

Officials with Opus East, Long Gate's developer, could not be reached for comment yesterday. In the past, they said they had other prospective tenants for the Total Beverage site.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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