OXFORD — The state Division of Liquor Licensing and Enforcement Board is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether Oxford should be granted a fourth state agency liquor store license.
On Friday, March 24, the state board met at the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations Building in Hallowell to take testimony from two applicants for the new fourth state agency liquor store license and a third –currently open – agency store license held by the town.
Two local businesses – Roopers Beverage & Redemption at 980 Main St. and WalMart #2183 at 1240 Main St. – have applied for the licenses. The town of Oxford was one of 17 municipalities requesting state agency liquor licenses during the day-long meeting.
“No decision has been made at this point and one will not be made for a few more weeks at least,” David Heidrich, communications director of the state’s Office of the Commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, told the Advertiser Democrat on Monday, March 27.
The decision to request a fourth license was unanimously approved by the Board of Selectmen last month, following a recommendation from State Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, to pursue the additional license based on increased tourism in the area.
The town currently has three state agency store licenses – which are held by Hannaford #8338 at 1603 Main St.and the Big Apple Food Store at 467 Main St. –in addition to the third open license.
Maine law places a restriction on the number of agency liquor licenses that can be issued based on municipalities’ population. The towns can file requests for additional licenses based on tourism.
“Towns with a population of 2,000-5,000 are eligible for three agency liquor stores,” Heidrich explained. “Towns are eligible for an additional store if tourism factors warrant.”
In its argument to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations, Town Clerk Beth Olsen said, “The Town of Oxford, with the addition of Maine’s newest Casino has seen an increase in tourism. With the already popular Oxford Plains Speedway, the [Route] 26 thruway to all of Oxford Hills and the influx of summer residences our population certainly increases enough to warrant the need for the fourth license.”
Maine is one of 18 jurisdictions that regulates spirits (hard liquor) within its borders and because of that, spirits are only sold in agency stores licensed by the state. The state is also the only entity that may bring liquor into the state, which means other holders of beer and wine licenses must buy from an agency liquor store that is licensed as a reselling agent by the state. There are currently more than 500 agency stores throughout the state.
In 2014, the Bureau signed a 10-year contract with Pine State Spirits to provide administration, warehousing and distribution for Maine spirits business. The Bureau calls the agency liquor stores “our essential business partners.”
Despite a long history of temperance, all counties in the state are now “wet” (able to sell beer, wine and spirits.) There are some “dry” towns based on local option by voters.
State law allows voters to control alcohol availability locally and to issue beer and wine licenses, but the state retains the oversight and licensing of all liquor applications.
The state’s processing of liquor applications includes a background investigation on the applicant by the Division and will include an inspection of the proposed premises.
“It’s not that easy. It’s a process. First of all the state has to make them available,” Roopers Beverage and Redemption owner Steve Roops told the Advertiser Democrat last week.
The licenses are highly sought after.
“We’ve only been in business for six months,” Roop said of his sixth store that opened last year on Route 26 in Oxford. “It’s a tough go with beer and wine. There are questions every day [from shoppers] for liquor.”
For Roop, who owns five other Roopers in Auburn and Lewiston that are agency stores, this was the sixth time he has gone before the state agency for a liquor store license.
He said testimony before the board will highlight the store’s wide array of goods and services, including availability of special orders, the store’s good security and carding practices, among other things.
“Its a whole package. Our growth [in all six stores] has been phenomenal over past five years. I think we have a good case,” he said.
While the redemption center is off and running and beer and wine sales are good in Oxford, the big money can come in the wholesale contracts that could become available to a local state agency liquor store like Roopers.
The full license would allow Roopers to resell to establishments like bars and restaurants.
In Oxford alone that means big businesses like the Oxford Casino or Applebee’s.
“It’s an account we’d love to have,” he said.
After licensing occurs, the Division monitors all licensed premises for compliance with Maine liquor laws. Part of the ongoing compliance activities are unannounced inspections of premises that focus on a number of issues, including a review of business records including liquor purchases and sales, seating capacity (if it is a restaurant), operating hours, etc.
If a violation is discovered, a licensee may receive an official warning or be cited for the violation and referred for prosecution.
Beer and wine
While Oxford may soon have four state agency licenses, it also has a number of beer and wine licenses. These are different than the state licences. Currently there are 14 on- and off-premise beer and wine licenses that have been issued by the town.
Under Maine law, a municipality may issue an “on- or off-premise” liquor license and place whatever restrictions it deems appropriate on those licenses.
Places like the Oxford Casino, Applebee’s Bar and Grill and the Ocean Pearl Restaurant hold “on-premise” licenses, which means the beer and wine is consumed “on site,”while others like Steve’s General Store and Wal-Mart have off-premise license, which means they sell beer and wine that is taken off the site for consumption.
There is no limit on the number of beer and wine licenses available, only the restrictions a town may place on them.
But the licenses are not always given out without dispute.
In 1987, for example, the Board of Selectmen held a special Saturday session to approve a beer and wine license for the Oxford Plains Speedway. A petition asking that it not be approved was submitted by an Oxford resident and was signed by 108 others. Following a 90-minute discussion with track officials, a one-year permit was approved.
The permit required that consumption be in designated areas only except during the Oxford 250 where consumption would be allowed throughout the stands.
Today the beer and wine license for the Oxford Plains Speedway is held by Polly’s Pit Stop. It is due to be renewed by Saturday, April 15. The license has been renewed annually in recent years without objection.
The most recent license renewal was for Capital Pizza Huts. On March 2, the Board of Selectmen unanimously and with no discussion approved the renewal of the license.