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Ferry food may hinge on liquor

The prospect that food service could end on the ferries from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island didn’t stop the Island County commissioners from offering a challenge to the sale of alcoholic beverages on the route.

The commissioners Monday voted unanimously to make no recommendation regarding approval of a liquor license for the route. While not a negative recommendation, it also was not a vote of support for the proposal. Furthermore, the resolution asks the state Liquor Control Board to hold a public hearing on the issue of selling alcohol on the ferries, which are part of the state highway system.

The liquor license is being sought by CDX Ferry Concessions, Inc., of Mukilteo.

Last month the commissioners delayed action on the liquor license application to give involved parties time to comment. Beer and wine are presently available on the ferries serving the route, the Cathlamet and Kittitas, but a change in ownership of the concessionaire required a new liquor license.

The responses seemed to have tempered the commissioners’ feelings on the issue. In November, Commissioners Mac McDowell and Mike Shelton had been strongly critical of selling alcohol on the ferries. In the end, however, they did not recommend the license be denied, choosing instead to make no recommendation.

In a letter dated Nov. 21, Michael Choe, president of CDX Concessions, stated that beer and wine sales are already limited on the short, 15-minute Clinton to Whidbey Island ferry route, but that those sales are an “essential element of galley service.”

Eliminating beer and wine sales, Choe wrote, “will be a death blow to the continuing operation of the galley service.” The move would eliminate the jobs of eight people, seven of whom live in Island County, he said.

Commissioner Mac McDowell acknowledged that “liquor keeps this food service in business,” and that if it’s disallowed, then other galley items would be gone as well.

Commissioner Mike Shelton concurred with the food service worries. “People are used to getting a cup of coffee on the ferry,” he said. “I know if the liquor license is denied and CDX decides not to have concessions, we will make a lot of people unhappy.”

Nevertheless, Shelton said, “It’s very wrong-headed that we should sanction something that impairs people’s driving ability.”

Two members of the audience encouraged the commissioners to oppose the license. Joann Hellmann, coordinator of the Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County, said the message the state is presently sending with its alcohol sales onboard ferries is that “it’s perfectly permissible to drink and drive.” She added, “Many of us are mad as hell.”

After the meeting, Hellmann expressed disappointment that the commissioners didn’t recommend denial of the license, but “I do appreciate the commissioners taking the time to listen.”

McDowell said later that the resolution was weaker than he expected, and he had been leaning toward a recommendation of denial. Byrd’s reluctance to go along apparently led to the decision to make no recommendation.

Holly Jones, program manager for the Seeds of Change youth program on South Whidbey and a member of the Island County Meth Action Team, told the commissioners they had a chance to help change the “social norms” surrounding alcohol use.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to address the social norms of drinking and driving,” Jones said. “Children and teens on the ferry see adults drink and get back in their cars.”

Commissioner Bill Byrd expressed some unease with the issue, saying “people have to be responsible for their own actions.”

The liquor license application from CDX has strong backing from Washington State Ferries.

Michael Anderson, ferry system executive director, wrote in a Dec. 2 letter to the commissioners that ferry vessels have historically sold beer and wine in their galleys. He likened the ferries to “land-based food establishments.”

Anderson noted that ferries on other routes, including Kingston, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Southworth, Vashon Island and the San Juan Islands all have beer and wine in their galleys.

The Clinton to Whidbey route is marginal anyway from a galley sales perspective, Anderson’s letter stated. After more than a year without galley service, CDX stepped in on a trial basis. Its predecessor, Sodexho Services, found food service on the run to be unprofitable. “As such, the ability to sell beer and wine in the vessels’ food service area is critical to CDX’s success,” he wrote.

The liquor license decision rests with the Liquor Control Board.

Bob Burdick, communications director, said Monday the board generally takes input from local governments seriously, but it was too soon to know if the board will hold a public hearing as the county commissioners requested in their resolution.

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