Liquor initiative stirs concern on Whidbey

Coupeville Liquor Store owner Pam Smith has mixed feelings about the passing of Initiative 1183, which privatizes liquor sales in Washington. She stands with her inventory while holding her Jack Russell terrier, Matia.   - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Coupeville Liquor Store owner Pam Smith has mixed feelings about the passing of Initiative 1183, which privatizes liquor sales in Washington. She stands with her inventory while holding her Jack Russell terrier, Matia.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

With a resounding yes, voters said they want liquor sales to be sold in private businesses.

Voters approved Initiative 1183 during Tuesday’s election. With its approval comes a litany of concerns from businesses and government officials on Whidbey Island.

Nearly 60 percent of the voters statewide signed off on the initiative, which basically forces the state to auction off its liquor stores to private owners.

In Island County, the margin was greater with more than 63 percent of voters supporting privatization.

On Whidbey Island, the liquor store in Oak Harbor will be auctioned while the contract store in Coupeville will remain with its current operator because of a grandfather clause.

“We’re very disappointed with the outcome of the election,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, which currently oversees the 166 state-owned and 163 contract stores operating throughout Washington.

He said that more than 900 people working in the state-owned liquor stores will lose their jobs. Most liquor will now be sold at large stores like Costco, which largely funded the successful initiative effort.

Coupeville Liquor Store owner Pam Smith said she intends to remain in business after the state stores are privatized. Although she supported the initiative, Smith has several concerns. She is worried about how increased competition may affect her small operation and she will have to change her business practices.

An employee at the Oak Harbor liquor store referred questions to the state liquor control board.

Smith is concerned about how she will find enough money to purchase inventory the state currently provides on a bailment basis. According to the Liquor Control Board, a typical state store contains about $125,000 in inventory.

Smith’s store, located on North Main Street, is the only place in Coupeville selling liquor. Her store is also popular with residents because of the baby goats and baby sheep that are often bottle fed during the spring. Smith’s Jack Russell terrier, Matia, will often crawl down from her chair to greet customers.

Through privatization, the animal lover/liquor store owner hopes she’ll make more money, despite competition from large stores.

She said her business automatically gains value, which would be important if she wanted to retire or sell her business. In addition, it opens the chance for her store to remain in her family, which Smith said wasn’t certain if she remained under contract with the state.

Initiative 1183 was hotly contested with millions of dollars being spent to push both sides of the issue.

Supporters claimed the change will add millions of dollars to the coffers of local governments. However, one official isn’t so sure because of the $2 billion state budget shortfall. “Yes on 1183” said Whidbey Island jurisdictions will receive $1.6 million over the next six years.

However, Elaine Marlow, Island County budget director, said the governor’s list of proposed budget cuts would reduce or eliminate the liquor dollars cities and counties currently receive.

“The reality is the state has its own set of budget woes,” Marlow said.

She added that any additional revenue sparked by the passage of I-1183 will likely be more than offset by cuts approved by the Legislature, especially if reductions hit other departments.

Sheriff Mark Brown, who has dealt with countless people with alcohol problems, is concerned about the increased availability of liquor.

“Advertisement and easy access leads to increased consumption,” Brown said. He hopes stores new to the liquor business will make sure they have sufficient security and that employees receive the proper training to control liquor sales.

Brian Smith added the Liquor Control Board is committed to a smooth transition of its stores. The state’s liquor stores are currently preparing for the busy holiday season. Once that is complete, work will begin to privatize the stores. In addition, licenses, such as ones allowing distribution, have to be created and new rules have to be written.


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