Liquor store limits sought Smaller dealers back bills that would keep bigger ones out

March 07, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

At the behest of the state's small, independent alcoholic beverage dealers, some members of the General Assembly want to limit the size of liquor stores to prevent the larger ones from competing in Maryland.

Bills in the House and Senate would limit liquor stores to 10,000 square feet of retail space.

Opponents of the measure say it is anti-competitive and bad for consumers. They say the legislation clearly is aimed at such huge stores as the 20,000-square-foot Beltway Fine Wines near Towson and the Landover-based Total Beverage operation, which has three stores of about 25,000 square feet each in Northern Virginia and is looking for a site in Maryland.

At a hearing on the House bill yesterday, Del. Michael A. Crumlin, a Prince George's County Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the House bill, said such big operations could endanger smaller establishments.

"Let's go slow with these supermarkets of alcoholic beverages," Crumlin said in an interview. It is appropriate to single out the retail liquor industry for size regulation "because of the product it sells," he said.

James C. Simpson III, owner of The Liquor Store in Waldorf, agreed, saying controls on the alcoholic beverage industry are needed to prevent the kinds of trouble that prompted Prohibition.

"There is no such thing as a free market economy in the alcoholic beverage industry," Simpson said. "Bigger isn't always better."

The bill was criticized as anti-competitive by Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee.

"It flies in the face of what most people would consider free enterprise," he said.

Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said that under Maryland's three-tier liquor distribution system -- producer, wholesaler and retailer -- a chain of big stores should be able to have one Maryland outlet, the same as any other retailer.

He noted that Maryland has taken no steps to protect retailers such as pharmacies from chain competition.

"If they get this bill passed, clearly it will slam the door on our opportunities," said Robert Ampula, president and chief operating officer of Total Beverage.

When Total Beverage tried to open a store in Howard County in December, it was rejected by the county liquor board after smaller stores and a religious group joined to fight it. Ampula said the company plans to open two stores in Chicago instead.

"In the long run, it's going to hurt the consumer," Ampula said.

Total Beverage stores usually carry 500 varieties of beer and 5,000 varieties of wine, along with sodas and gourmet foods.

A survey of Northern Virginia stores conducted by The Sun in July found that prices were generally lower at the Total Beverage operations than at other stores in the area. Patrons said in interviews at the time that they shopped at the store primarily for its vast selection.

Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for Beltway Fine Wines, said the legislation was a final effort to put that operation out of business.

"It certainly is aimed at my client," Evans said. "The retailers hate this guy. They can't compete with him in the marketplace, so they've come to Annapolis to try to put him out of business."

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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