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Battle of the bottle rages-Budget remedy pits grocers against liquor store owners

While grocery stores may be raising a toast to a relatively obscure provision in Governor David Paterson’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, liquor store owners are up in arms at the proposal, which would allow grocery stores around the state to sell wine.

The reason for the inclusion of the provision in the budget is that the proposal, should it become law, would add funds to New York’s coffers, with the state levying a franchise fee on groceries and convenience stores that took advantage of the change. In its first year, according to estimates, the franchise fee would bring in approximately $105 million; it is estimated to bring in $54 million the next.

Nonetheless, predicting that many of them would go out of business should the change go into effect, liquor store owners have begun organizing, and have formed a coalition, The Last Store on Main Street, whose main purpose is to derail the proposal.

“This misguided plan would benefit big box stores like Wal-Mart without creating even one new job, while imperiling Main street business across the state and the thousands of jobs they provide,” contended Jeff Saunders of the Retailers Alliance Foundation, who predicted that upwards of 1,000 liquor stores would be shuttered should the provision take effect. The net loss in jobs to the state, Saunders said, would be more than 4,000.

In Bay Ridge, one of those working actively to dead-end the idea is Heather Hamilton, the owner of Long’s Wines & Liquors at 7917 Fifth Avenue. Hamilton brought the issue to Brooklyn Democrats for Change, a progressive political club in the neighborhood, which voted at its February meeting to oppose the idea, with letters to that effect to be sent to all the elected officials who represent club members.

“It’s happening, unless we stop it,” warned Hamilton, who said that besides having the potential to devastate liquor retailers, the proposal would also make it easier for teenagers to get wine. “We believe there will be negative consequences. Over half the stores here in New York State could be out of business in a year, possibly more, and there would be far more access to alcohol among our kids. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hamilton also said that, if many liquor stores went out of business, there would be impetus to extend the sale of hard liquor as well to grocery and convenience stores. “We believe they will go after that next,” she told the group gathered in the Union Church Parish Hall, 8101 Ridge Boulevard. “We believe it will be a slippery slope.”

In opposing the idea, liquor store owners have been joined by members of law enforcement, who have also founded a new coalition, Law Enforcement Against Drunk Driving (LEADD), whose members include PBAs from around the state, including New York City. The city’s Detectives Endowment Association is also a member.

Citing the increase in traffic fatalities among people under the age of 21 that occurs in states which allow wine to be sold in groceries such as Florida, California and Texas, LEADD Chairperson Daniel Sisto, vice president of the New York State Troopers PBA, has contended that the proposal is a “bad idea.

“The State Liquor Authority,” Sisto said, “is already stretched beyond its means, and this dramatic expansion of wine in thousands of new outlets would result in less enforcement. In addition, an increase in drunk driving will put more pressure on police forces throughout the state at a time when they are also being asked to do more with less.”

Nonetheless, not everyone agrees. Kenneth Adams, president and CEO of The Business Council of New York State, said that the proposal would be, “Good for the economy and good for consumers.

“Allowing supermarkets and grocery stores to sell wine will create new markets for upstate and Long Island wineries and convenience for consumers,” Adams went on. “In addition, the proposal will generate new revenue for the cash-strapped state.”

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