UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Keep Colorado local & independent

“If it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it.”

Everyone knows that’s the first rule for governing, or any decision making really. And that sagely advice runs through my mind every time another ballot issue about liquor sales and supermarkets comes up, like clockwork, around election time. This year Colorado ballots have three separate liquor-related propositions, and only one of them should even be considered by voters. Proposition 124 will remove the limit on licenses individuals can hold, allowing independent liquor store owners to expand. This change is necessary for parity between liquor stores and supermarkets, which have been selling beer since 2016 and are allowed more licenses than independent owners. The other two propositions, 125 and 126, are simply more unnecessary legislation attempting to correct a problem that doesn’t exist.

Colorodans appreciate and value the role of the independent business owner in supporting a vast market of craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries. There’s a reason the Mile High state is called “Beer’s Napa Valley,” and it’s related to the state being a bit of an incubator for independent businesses that appeal to and are supported by local markets. Visiting one of Colorado’s brew pubs opens consumers to local specialties, and local liquor stores often stock neighboring businesses’ products for retail. Thus, locally-owned businesses are able to support each other and the community. That model took a hit several years ago when the state allowed beer sales at supermarkets, and independent stores saw a noticeable drop in revenue. The sale of wine and spirits enabled small businesses to remain solvent.

As every Coloradan knows, local supermarkets always have a liquor store nearby, and for decades these businesses peacefully coexisted. However, the big three grocers of King Soopers, Safeway, and Walmart covet the livelihood of independent owners, and for many years have been trying to edge out the little guy. While Coloradans appreciate the local model, newcomers to the state who are used to beer, wine, and liquor sales in supermarkets are likely to support the national corporate chains because that’s what they’re used to. I know, having been one of those new residents twenty years ago, when I moved from Illinois. I still recall wandering the aisle of my King Soopers, looking for some wine. When I asked a young clerk stocking the aisle, he just smiled and said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

When that clerk pointed me across the parking lot to my local beverage store, I came to appreciate the value of an independent liquor store the minute I walked in and was greeted by a staff that knew their product and had a wide variety of it. While some consumers talk about their need for convenience in one-stop shopping, that model is not actually the norm nationwide. In fact, only seventeen states offer liquor sales in supermarkets. Perhaps more interestingly, seven states actually have state-owned liquor stores, and they are not the types of places you’d expect to have socialism managing the booze industry: Alabama, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia all own their liquor stores directly. 

If supermarkets are allowed to sell wine, and eventually spirits in their quest to monopolize all food and beverage sales, the stores will inevitably sacrifice shelf space for those products, an unnecessary move for a business model designed to provide for the daily necessities of food and household products. The big three corporate chains are certainly not hurting for business, and they don’t need to nose in on someone else’s. The most unnecessary of the ballot props is the call for third-party delivery of booze. Currently, many liquor stores have sanctioned delivery services, which many of us discovered during the spring and summer of 2020. But expanding delivery leaves too much margin for error in terms of underage sales, and it’s one more example of trying to fix a non-problem.

The reality is that Colorado’s unique system for liquor sales works quite well for everyone, except the out-of-state corporate supermarkets. The Walmartification of Main Street across America has succeeded in providing consumers with cookie-cutter one-stop shopping, though it’s always been at the expense of local independent business owners. Other than Proposition 124, these ballot proposals seem like one more example of change for change’s sake, which is the downside of progressivism. The more prudent and conservative approach is to stop legislating every aspect of our lives and not try to fix what ain’t broke.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com