Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this story, both the House and Senate have announced they will close because of Tuesday’s heavy snowfall in Denver.
By Kristin Pazulski, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Two separate efforts to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength alcohol will be discussed today — one a bill in State House committee, the other a ballot initiative proposal.
Supporters of grocery stores selling full-strength alcohol say consumers have requested this convenience and call the bill “common sense,” while dissenters argue that it will cause to the Colorado’s liquor industry to “suffer.”
“It’s super inconvenient to have to go to two different stores,” said Blake Harrison, the initiative’s proponent who is also running for the State House’s District 8 seat. “This will be really good for the consumer.”
Critics, which include liquor stores and Colorado breweries, disagree.
“All Colorado liquor businesses will suffer if [the bill] is passed,” said Ron Vaughn, co-owner of Argonaut Wine & Liquor on Colfax in Capitol Hill.
This afternoon, the House Business Affairs and Labor committee will discuss House Bill 1279, which was introduced by Rep. Liane “Buffie” McFadyen, D-Pueblo.
If passed by the House, it would allow grocery stores that earn at least 51 percent of its annual revenues from food sales to purchase liquor stores within 1,000 feet of the grocer, and sell full-strength beer, wine and spirits in its stores. Current law dictates that grocery store chains can sell full-strength liquor in just one of its locations.
The other effort being discussed today, a proposed ballot initiative, is slightly different from the bill but aims for the same result.
Harrison, who proposed the ballot initiative, is meeting with the Colorado Legislative Council today to discuss the intent and language of the potential initiative. As it is written now, the ballot question would ask voters to allow full-strength alcoholic beverage sales in convenience and grocery stores and allow liquor stores to own more than one location.
Diane Mulligan, spokeswoman for Fair Market Coalition, said having alcohol products in grocery stores is something “our consumers have been requesting for years.”
Ben Davis, spokesman for Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, argues otherwise. He said the association’s surveys have found that less than 40 percent of consumers are looking for full-strength beer in grocery stores.
“They are equally bad ideas,” Davis said. “Both [the ballot initiative and the bill] are designed to meet a consumer need that isn’t there.”
Critics also are concerned that giving these large corporations the ability to sell alcohol will kill smaller stores.
“All the stores in a grocers area will be put in jeopardy,” Davis said. “It will just increase the profit margins for the King Soopers and Safeways out there.”
Great Divide Brewing owner Brian Dunn said allowing grocers to sell alcohol will decrease variety and agreed smaller stores will close.
“I know that if we walk into Argonaut, they know our beer and will sell our new beers,” Dunn said. “A lot of liquor stores will go out of business, and those are the guys that are carrying a diversity of beers.”
Chains “select beers that are more mainstream,” he said, adding that the Safeway in Littleton sells full-strength beer, but only carries two of Great Divide’s nearly two dozen seasonal and regular brews.
Mulligan argues that the competition will not be as drastic as critics like Dunn think. She points out that liquor stores are already competing with locations closer to grocery stores, and those near the grocery stores are given the choice to negotiate with and sell to chains under the bill before the Legislature (not under the ballot initiative).
As for variety competition, “There won’t be a lot of competition,” Mulligan said, because smaller stores will specialize in local brews while the grocers carry more general beverages that shoppers want to quickly pick up.
Another concern for critics is safety.
“It seems short-sighted to make these sweeping changes,” said Argonaut’s Vaughn, who said he fears under-age cashiers would get the opportunity to sell alcohol to their friends as a grocer employee. He said while managers would be overseeing the cashiers, this could still happen when managers are distracted with other business.
But in liquor stores, “there is a clear, hard line if you are only selling beer and wine,” he argued. Suspected under-agers in liquor store would bring immediate attention, where in a grocery store they could be shopping for anything.
Harrison said the outcome of HB 1279 could affect the pursuance of the ballot initiative, but for now he is carrying on with the process. The bill will still have a long way to go even if it is passed by committee today — and, pending Colorado Legislative Council’s approval, he will need to collect more than 76,000 signatures to get his initiative on the ballot.
Harrison proposed a similar initiative last November, but did not have sufficient support and only addressed beer and wine in grocery stores.
“This initiative goes further than the other one,” said Harrison. “There is a good chance it will end on the ballot in November.”
Similar legislative measures, allowing alcohol in grocery or convenience stores, have been introduced and killed in the past.