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Big stores on Whidbey make a run for liquor

Booze will soon start flowing out of some of Whidbey Island’s largest stores.

Thanks to Initiative 1183, which voters approved in November, the state has to get out of the liquor business by June. At that time, stores greater than 10,000 square feet can start selling hard alcohol in addition to the beer and wine they currently offer.

At least nine Whidbey Island businesses have applied for licenses that will allow for the sale of spirits. They include Albertson’s, Safeway, Saar’s Market Place, Walmart and Walgreens in Oak Harbor; Prairie Center Red Apple in Coupeville; and the Goose, the Star Store, Payless Foods and Bailey’s Corner Store on South Whidbey Island, according to information from the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Greg Saar, owner of Saar’s Market Place on Highway 20 in Oak Harbor, said the initiative transformed the state from one of the most restrictive places to sell alcohol into one of the most flexible.

He is planning to have 40 feet of shelf space devoted to liquor and doesn’t have to provide any additional training for his staff. He was proud to say that his staff never once sold to underage buyers whenever the Liquor Control Board conducted stings.

Ken Hofkamp, owner of Prairie Center Red Apple in Coupeville, acknowledged  he has applied for a liquor license, but he isn’t sure yet if he will expand into alcohol sales.

With so many businesses on Whidbey Island planning to expand into liquor sales, Saar noted that it won’t be a big boost to business. There will be more businesses meeting a demand that was originally filled by one liquor store in Oak Harbor.

Meanwhile, small liquor operators are scrambling to figure out the new regulations and whether the change will be a benefit to their operation.

“It’s going to be a hassle,” said Scott Fraser, owner of Oak Harbor’s Frasers Gourmet Hideaway. He is concerned distributors won’t bother selling to a small business with a limited use of alcohol, though he said one of his wine distributors is expanding into alcohol sales.

He was concerned that the supermarkets expanding into the liquor market will only offer the most popular varieties of booze and not the specialty items he uses for many of his drinks.

“It’s going to be a bit of a challenge for us,” Fraser said.

More than 58 percent of the voters statewide approved the initiative and 64.5 percent of the voters in Island County voted in favor of it. It’s been challenged in court, but a judge this week upheld the initiative.

To comply with the new law, the Washington State Liquor Control Board is in the process of selling all its assets. A six-week-long auction is in progress to auction off its liquor stores throughout the state.

Rather than purchasing a location outright, prospective buyers will bid on the right to buy a license and secure a store under 10,000 square feet. The Liquor Control Board doesn’t own the buildings, the entity simply leased space, said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Oak Harbor’s liquor store, located on Barlow Street across from the movie theater, is currently on the auction block. The online auction started March 7 and continues until April 20.

Currently 12 bids have been made for the rights to the Oak Harbor store with someone with the user name “offthehook” submitting the current high bid of $2,375.

Smith said  whoever secures the winning bid will have to negotiate a lease in the current location, or find a different place within a one mile radius.

Stores that contract with the state, such as the one in Coupeville, are  excluded from the auction and grandfathered in from the new 10,000-square-foot regulation. They can keep their small stores.

For more information about Initiative 1183, go to the liquor control board’s website at www.liq.wa.gove. Information about the state’s auction can be found at www.publicsurplus.com/sms/washingtonliq,wa/browse/home.

 

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