County has a long history with liquor

Area's colorful relationship with alcohol to take on new shade as state control of sales set to end June 1

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Come Friday, Washington will make a historic shift when the state government will no longer control hard-liquor sales, thanks to a new law voted in last November.

But for residents of Clark County, where booze has a lively history, the change merely opens a new chapter on our enduring relationship with alcohol.

Washington's new law -- voted in by Initiative 1183 -- is a stark contrast to the 1920s Prohibition era, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol through 1933. Now, after a 73-year period of state liquor sales, the new law opens Washington's nearly $1 billion bottled liquor market to all retail stores that are 10,000 square feet or larger.

Nobody can say for sure how consumers will react, as state officials and private retailers prepare for the change, despite a last-ditch legal effort to reverse I-1183 that is still being considered by the state Supreme Court.

Some say we'll soon forget about all of the fuss.

"Nothing's ever as bad or as good as people think it will be," said Pat Jollota, a Vancouver historian and author. "Transitions are always difficult because people don't like change."

In Clark County, the planned June 1 switch to private sales will greatly expand the number of stores that sell hard liquor, a market set to increase from 14 state-run and state-contracted liquor stores to approximately 76 licensed sellers of hard-liquor bottles, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

"We'll be stocking the shelves just after closing at 11 p.m. (Thursday)," said Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for Portland-based Fred Meyer, which operates eight Clark County stores.

Meanwhile, full-service pharmacies, grocers and variety stores, such as Walgreens, WinCo Foods, Safeway, Albertsons, Walmart and Costco, are preparing to carry the hard stuff throughout the county.

A majority of 58.4 percent of Clark County voters approved the measure, a distinction from the past community's more fractured opinions, Jollota said.

For example, Camas founders incorporated the city in 1906 to block plans for a downtown saloon proposed by a German

settler with the surname Proebstel. That way, Camas could vote down Proebstel's plans. It all happened during the business reign of Henry Pittock, who founded the town's paper mill to produce his Portland-based Oregonian newspaper.

"They were all Presbyterians" and teetotalers, Jollota said of the Camas leaders.

By comparison, the history of downtown Vancouver almost always included a beer brewery and a string of saloons and taverns to serve the soldiers stationed at its long-standing military barracks.

"Beer brewing was one of our major industries," Jollota said.

Area farmers grew and harvested hops used by beer brewers and much of the fruit grown in Vancouver's Fruit Valley was sold to brandy makers.

When Prohibition swept in in the 1920s, "It did a lot of harm to us, economically," Jollota said.

The end of Prohibition ushered in a new era of state regulations over when and where residents could buy bottled liquor. That will all change starting June 1, which will open a whole new arena of free-market trade for retailers.

"We're adding about 24 linear feet of shelving," said Michael Read, a spokesman for Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Foods. Its stores will each carry about 150 stock-keeping units of hard liquor displayed next to the customer service kiosks at the company's four Clark County stores.

Among other hard-liquor sellers in Clark County, three Walmart stores and two giant Costco warehouses will also sell booze. The mix of liquor sellers will include a group of small entrepreneurs setting up at stores already contracted by the state and at Clark County's six state-run stores auctioned off to new owners.

Smaller businesses hope to rely on convenience and selection to compete with the volume price breaks at the bigger chains, said Byron Roselli, a vice president and commercial real estate expert with Eric Fuller & Associates Inc. in Vancouver.

"There will continue to be people who like to go to the smaller stores," he said.

Grandfathered in to do business under the new state law, the smaller stores will be the only less-than-10,000-square-foot-sized outlets allowed to sell hard liquor. That could create a competitive advantage for owners who string several stores together as chains, said Roselli, who helped negotiate store leases for two of the winning bidders of state liquor stores in Vancouver.

"One of them bought four stores across the state," including two in Vancouver, Roselli said. His other local client bought nine state liquor stores in the online auction that raised a total of $25.9 million in bid fees to the state, as of May 23.

A second auction was held May 24 to sell off another 18 state stores not claimed in the earlier online auction.

Meanwhile, the last run of liquor reserves have been shipped to the remaining state retail stores, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the liquor control board. Its 220,000-square-foot Seattle warehouse will be sold, no longer needed to store the state's liquor inventory.

"They (the state's liquor control board) were very, very astute business managers," said Orlin Sorenson, co-owner of Woodinville Whiskey Co., based in a Puget Sound community north of Seattle.

It was a lesson learned early on by Sorenson and his business partner Brett Carlile, whiskey distillery owners who applied to the state recently to get the product sold in state liquor stores. The state board agreed, after a thorough examination of products from Woodinville Whiskey Co., a craft distillery, which means the small-batch product must be made with at least 51 percent of Washington-grown agricultural products.

"They (the state board) expected your product to sell," Sorenson said. "They were in the business to make money and they wanted the products on the shelves to move."

Although the three-member board will no longer make product selections, it will continue to set alcohol policy for the state, Smith said.

"The agency will continue to license over 17,000 locations throughout the state, including stores, bars and restaurants," he said. Despite its ongoing responsibilities, a June 15 layoff will reduce the state agency from 1,400 employees to about 200 people, completely disbanding the organization's business arm.

Smith said the pending June 1 transition has created a very hectic time for state employees dealing with a crush of about 1,600 new applications to sell bottled liquor.

"They've been working overtime and weekends to keep up with the growth of licensing," Smith said.

But some expect a new layer of state fees to raise the retail price of booze anywhere from 25 to 30 percent above today's costs. What remains unknown is whether price competition and volume sales discounts to retail distributors will make prices competitive and whether higher liquor prices will send booze-buying patrons across the border to Oregon, where prices have always been lower, said Christie Scott, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

"We'll be very interested to see if sales go up in Oregon," she said.

Meanwhile, Washington patrons account for about three-quarters of the customers at the 205 Liquor Store in Portland, said Amy Barber, a manager of the store on 102nd Avenue and East Burnside, just off Interstate 205.

"I think the prices going up in Washington will drive more people right across the bridge," she said.

The June 1 change in the way liquor will be sold in Washington could initiate new developments in Clark County's rich and raucous history with the hard stuff.

Over time, the new law may even prompt social change, as it has in the past, Jollata said.

"Before Prohibition, a lady would never go into a tavern," she said. "Afterward, it became kind of chic and acceptable."

The post-Prohibition era also led to entirely new rules about drinking, laws that evolved from earlier edicts, such as the one issued by Gen. George C. Marshall.

"He said, 'If a soldier could stand up to the bar and order another drink, he would be considered sober,'" Jollota said of the late-1930s commander of the Vancouver Barracks who went on to become Army Chief of Staff during World War II and U.S. secretary of state.

Jollota does not expect the county to experience backlash from the I-1183 changes.

"I think in five years, we'll wonder what all the hoo-ha was about," she said.