Mega-store, mega-rejection Howard County: Total Beverage chain failed to prove a need for exotic beer and wine.

December 23, 1996

THE QUESTION boiled down to this: Does Howard County need a liquor store with 500 kinds of beer and 5,000 brands of wine to serve the community?

The county liquor board suggested that the answer is "no," rejecting a bid by Total Beverage to hold a license to operate a huge beer and wine store at the Long Gate shopping center in Ellicott City.

The definition of "need," however, was never clearly explained.

The board's formula for determining need was a complicated mathematical equation involving aggregate household income and existing liquor sales that even board Chairman C. Vernon Gray had a tough time explaining.

A better and simpler way to assess need in this case could have been to ascertain whether the planned Total Beverage store would have brought convenience to buyers of exotic beers and wines that are hard to find.

Total Beverage was prepared to take a huge risk. The retailer, which has three stores in Virginia, planned to stock nearly half its 15,000 square feet with brands that are hard to find. But it never convinced Mr. Gray and three other County Council members, sitting as the liquor board, of a need for beer and wine mega-store at Long Gate. Member Charles Feaga, who was absent because of the flu, indicated later that he would vote for the store because of another need: competition.

The 4-1 vote against Total Beverage is a victory for an unlikely coalition of smaller liquor stores and the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church. The alarmist liquor store owners decided to fight instead of compete. They contended that Total Beverage would have put them out of business, refusing to believe that service and convenience could keep them profitable.

The Rev. Bruce Romoser, pastor of Bethel Baptist, which sits across Route 108 from the proposed store site, opposed the application on moral grounds. He says personal experiences have convinced him of alcohol's evils. However, that did not prevent him from siding with purveyors of beer, wine and hard liquor (which Total Beverage would not have been permitted to sell) to defeat the proposed store.

The question of whether a metropolitan county would benefit from a store with such a vast stock of beer and wine went unanswered.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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