TOPEKA — If lawmakers pass a proposal aimed at allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell liquor, Sedgwick County could end up with a liquor store for every 1,000 adult residents.
Sedgwick County currently has 121 liquor stores — nearly one-fourth more than its nearest competitor, Johnson County. Sedgwick County also has 225 other stores selling lower-alcohol 3.2 beer and wine coolers.
Dean Reynoldson, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division, told senators Friday that the number of stores selling lower-alcohol beer, known as “cereal malt beverages,” gives them some guidance to the number of grocery stores, gas stations and convenience markets that could seek licenses to sell stronger beverages if the Legislature changes the current liquor laws.
If lawmakers allow it and all those stores decide to sell higher-alcohol beverages, that would give Sedgwick County 346 liquor stores.
According to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, the population of Sedgwick County over 21 years old is 343,000, which would mean if all the cereal malt retailers got licenses to sell stronger drink, there would be a liquor store for every 991 residents old enough to buy liquor.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said the potential number of liquor outlets is a prime concern for her northeast Wichita district, where many people have complained for years about the high concentration of liquor stores.
“I know when I get closer to my home, I’m going to see nothing but liquor stores and payday loan places,” she said. “There’s a saying in the community: ‘On every corner you’ll find a liquor store and a church.’ ”
In addition to concerns about the proliferation of liquor outlets in the community, Faust-Goudeau said she’s worried that allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength alcoholic beverages will drive out the mom-and-pop type of businesses that are there now.
“To me it’s kind of a Catch-22,” she said.
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said he was surprised at the number of potential liquor outlets in Sedgwick County.
“That’s a startling statistic and one that makes me question whether we have a market to sell that much liquor,” he said.
In the competition for customers, “At some point somebody’s going to lose because we don’t have that much need in our community.”
At present, the state-licensed liquor stores essentially have a state-sanctioned monopoly on sales of more potent alcoholic beverages.
But they’re also basically limited to alcohol sales only. Customers must go elsewhere — although sometimes only to an adjacent business — for mixers or snacks to go with their liquor.
A spokesperson for Uncork Kansas, a business coalition seeking to expand sales into grocery and convenience stores, said the free enterprise system, not the government, should determine the right number of alcohol outlets.
The spokeswoman, Jody Hanson, said the state’s current laws are “antiquated.”
She said the group hears every day from consumers who want a change “so they can buy a bottle of wine where they buy a steak, in one trip.”
Although Johnson County has about 50,000 more people than Sedgwick County, it has substantially fewer stores selling liquor or 3.2 beer.
Compared with Sedgwick County’s 121 liquor stores, Johnson County has 100, according to the ABC statistics released to senators Friday.
The number of cereal malt licensees is also smaller in Johnson County, 207 to Sedgwick County’s 225.
Officials say Johnson County loses out on some liquor sales because of its proximity to the border with Missouri, which has lower taxes on alcohol and hence lower prices.
After Johnson County, there’s a big drop-off in stores selling alcohol products.
Shawnee County, which includes Topeka, has 44 liquor stores and 98 cereal malt beverage retailers. Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., has 40 liquor stores and 79 cereal malt retailers.
Liquor stores are also thin on the ground in the counties neighboring Sedgwick County: Butler, 13; Cowley and Reno, 11 each; Sumner and Harvey, seven each; and Kingman, four.
One concern about expanding sales is that it could complicate the enforcement of state liquor laws, officials said.
Reynoldson said Alcoholic Beverage Control has 18 inspectors who investigate potential violations ranging from selling to underage customers to complex “straw man” schemes where people who are ineligible to own a liquor store try to get around that by using intermediaries.
ABC is now responsible for only the 761 total state-licensed liquor stores, Reynoldson said. If the cereal-malt beverage stores convert to liquor, that would add 2,013 outlets, he said.
“The thing to understand is that they (cereal malt retailers) are not licensed currently by ABC and they’re not regulated by ABC,” Reynoldson said. “These licenses are issued by cities and counties, and violations would be adjudicated by the cities and counties that actually give the license.”
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said he’s not sure how the enforcement picture would play out if large numbers of grocery and convenience stores can sell more potent beverages.
“If they’re allowed to put hard liquor in the stores, I would think the ABC would have to get involved,” said Ostmeyer, chairman of the Federal and State Affairs committee and an opponent of expanded sales.
O’Donnell, a Wichita City Council member before he was elected to the Senate in November, said he’d like to see the law enforcement of new liquor stores remain at the local level.
“I certainly hope that wouldn’t all have to come to the state,” he said. “I’d be more supportive of it (expanded sales) if it was going to be a local option rather than every city and every county in the state.”