Why limit liquor licenses?

Posted 2/23/21

In early January, two businesses made presentations to the Powell City Council about how they intended to expand their companies and bring more jobs into the city.

Mike Bailey, the owner of the …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Why limit liquor licenses?


In early January, two businesses made presentations to the Powell City Council about how they intended to expand their companies and bring more jobs into the city.

Mike Bailey, the owner of the Pit Stop No. 12 gas station, told councilors he wanted to expand the convenience store to offer more food options and add a liquor department. Bailey said he’d have the work done by the fall, and would hire as many as 10 more employees — on top of the five or so he already had.

Meanwhile, an Albertsons official outlined plans to open a new grocery store in the former Shopko building — complete with a pharmacy, Starbucks coffee shop and liquor department.

Albertsons Real Estate Manager Eric Holzer said the Boise-based chain would employ 80 to 100 people in Powell, with roughly 50-60 full time positions. He indicated the store would open in 2022.

It should have been a great day to be a city councilor, with two successful businesses outlining plans to make an investment in the City of Powell. And yet, because the companies were each seeking the city’s final retail liquor license, the meeting was more difficult than pleasant.

As was the case two years earlier, council members were forced to choose which business would get the coveted license.

Although Albertsons promised significantly more jobs, the decision wasn’t easy. The Pit Stop store has been in the community for years, is part of a Wyoming-based business and was closer to moving forward; concerns were raised over what impact a third grocery store might have on The Market at Powell/Mr. D’s Food Center and Blair’s Super Market; and Albertsons indicated it would move forward with its plans even if the license went to the Pit Stop. 

Council members opted to award the license to Albertsons on a 5-2 vote. The decision made sense, given that the store is poised to become one of Powell’s largest employers. 

Mayor John Wetzel cast one of the dissenting votes, pointing out that the city previously picked a project that was still a ways out from construction and “it came back to haunt us.”

In late 2018, councilors awarded the same retail license to the Powell Clocktower Inn — a planned hotel and conference center. They picked the public/private project over a high-end sports bar proposed by Stacy Bair, the owner of Club Dauntless, who was prepared to begin construction more quickly.

The Clocktower Inn project has not been canceled, but it has stalled out. That meant the city got neither a new hotel nor a new sports bar over the past two years, and led to the license being re-issued last month.

Having received that permit at the expense of a local business, we hope Albertsons officials feel an obligation to follow through on the plans they’ve laid out — and we have no reason to doubt they’ll do exactly that.

But looking at the debate from a wider angle, we would again ask: What exactly is the point of forcing businesses to fight over an artificially limited number of licenses to sell alcohol?

Wyoming law limits the number of retail liquor licenses each municipality and county government can hand out, with the cap based on population. The City of Powell, for example, can award only 14 retail licenses (though other, more limited varieties are available), which literally forces the government to pick winners and losers.

We understand the rationale behind restricting and regulating alcohol sales; irresponsible drinking contributes to and exacerbates numerous societal problems. But we’ve yet to see evidence that limiting the number of liquor stores curbs those problems. And frankly, the idea of limiting the number of people allowed within a certain industry is out of place in a capitalist society.

For instance, lawyers and doctors are subject to fairly significant regulations and oversight by the Wyoming State Bar and the Wyoming Board of Medicine, respectively. However, it would be absurd for those licensing boards to cap the number of attorneys or physicians in a given community. (They also don’t have to pay such large annual fees for their licenses.)

The Wyoming Legislature will convene next week to consider a host of bills, and we wish they would consider creating a freer market for liquor licenses. Lawmakers should keep the regulations that protect public safety and promote transparency among those selling alcohol, but should consider removing the cap.

The issue is complicated, of course, as the artificial limits on the number of licenses have driven up their price; some businesses have paid significant cash to buy licenses from other businesses, and suddenly opening up new licenses to any entrepreneurs would render those investments all but worthless. Perhaps a gradual increase in licenses could blunt the impact.

But at the end of the day, the cap does little more than create bitter disputes and inhibit competition, not to mention the inherent unfairness of the first-come, first-to-serve-alcohol system. If someone has a great idea for a new bar or liquor store, why should the government stand in the way?