Last call for liquor stores fuels frenzy

Bids come in fast as auction for former state-run sites closes

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YAKIMA -- Bidders closed in with a flurry of activity in the final hours of an online auction of Washington’s state-run liquor stores Friday, with total individual bids topping $7 million.

Voters approved an initiative last year kicking the state out of a booze industry it has tightly controlled since the end of Prohibition. The measure allows stores larger than 10,000 square feet to sell liquor -- and smaller stores in some cases -- and requires the state to get out of the liquor business.

The state opened an online, public auction of its 167 state-run stores on March 8. Hundreds of bids have been made in the weeks since, including a flurry of activity in the final hours Friday.

Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said the total dollar figure for the individual stores increased from $3.5 million to $7 million in less than 48 hours. Bids for the entire system of 167 stores had been slow, but then jumped to $4.5 million on Friday.

State officials will begin notifying winners over the weekend and announce those winners on Monday, Smith said.

The measure takes effect June 1.

“Our customers are used to going to those locations

already, and not having a break in that business activity is a benefit to the potential buyer,” Smith said. “Those people, knowing that they are the winners, can begin the process of getting their line of credit, working with the landlord on the space, begin the licensing process, so that they can have a license and be ready to sell on June 1.”

State stores carry more than 1,400 products, including locally produced wine and spirits, and state officials have said that the auction could be a golden chance for entrepreneurs looking to serve a niche market.

The state’s spirits industry is growing, with more than 20 distillers producing gin, whiskey and vodkas distilled from Washington wheat or potatoes. Washington wineries now top 700.

Successful bidders win the exclusive right for a liquor store at that location. In addition, the license would be exempt from approval requirements of local officials, as is usually the case.

More than 1,000 entities, including Target and large beverage retailer BevMo!, have already applied to sell liquor beginning June 1.