As Pa. liquor laws loosen, drive to make ‘dry’ towns wet a heady trend

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With their eyes on the May 16 primary, canvassers went door-to-door last month in one of the region’s more affluent towns – although they weren’t soliciting on behalf of a candidate.

The door-knockers were working for Giant Food Stores gathering signatures for a ballot question that would remove East Bradford Township, Chester County, from the ranks of 684 “dry” or “partially dry” municipalities in Pennsylvania that prohibit all or most retailers from selling alcohol.

Voters there will join others in Delaware, Bradford, Jefferson, and other counties who will decide whether to join the state government in loosening Prohibition-era liquor laws.

“The past 12 months have been historic, frankly,” said David McCorkle, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association.

Last summer, the state authorized grocery stores to apply to sell wine, residents to receive out-of-state wine shipments, and state Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores to operate longer on Sundays under Act 39.

McCorkle said that as state laws and public tastes converge, he expects to see an increase in ballot questions asking residents to shed local abstinence laws dating to the 1930s. New regulations allow residents to decide in any election cycle, not just during odd-year primaries, as had been the rule.

“Those local ordinances have to change before the industry can take advantage of Act 39,” McCorkle said.

Giant, a Dutch subsidiary with headquarters in Carlisle, and other supermarket chains in the region plan to continue to expand their offerings of alcohol, citing convenience for customers. About 400 stores in Pennsylvania are permitted to sell wine to go, McCorkle said, and he anticipates an additional 1,000 locations will be selling beer and wine in the next two years, based on Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board auctions of liquor licenses.

In New Jersey, municipalities, not the state, govern liquor licenses. They can issue one license to a restaurant or bar for every 3,000 people and one to a takeout business for every 7,500 people, according to the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. With few exceptions, grocery stores are not permitted to sell beer or wine.

In addition to East Bradford, residents in Shrewsbury Township, York County, and Camp Hill Borough, outside Harrisburg, will decide whether to allow liquor sales next month after a push by Giant — its first such campaigns — to collect the required number of signatures needed for a referendum. That’s 25 percent of the highest number of votes cast in the previous municipal general election, or 1,546 in the case of East Bradford.

“We did try in Westtown [Chester County],” Samantha Krepps, a spokeswoman for Giant, said. “We didn’t get enough signatures for that one.”

Delta Development Group Inc., a consulting firm, coordinated the Giant petition effort. Delta has helped other clients across the country, including grocers, private clubs, and restaurants, to gather signatures for referenda.

“Some people say, ‘We’re not looking to get a tavern on every street corner in our town,’ ” Eric Clancy, executive vice president at Delta, said. Delta assures residents that anyone wanting a liquor license must comply with local regulations.

“Getting a referendum on the ballot is progress,” said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food Trade News, which tracks the region’s grocery industry.

“It’s largely political sometimes how the rules in these communities or counties are negotiated that almost make the rules open hypocrisy unto themselves,” Metzger said. “If you object to alcohol being sold at a supermarket but not a tavern or bar, that seems hypocritical.”

Competition is a main driver of the expansion of liquor sales and the push to overturn Prohibition-era laws. Gifford Pinchot, the state’s first post-Prohibition governor, once said he wanted to discourage alcohol sales by making them “as inconvenient” as possible. 

Some officials in dry towns push the switch to alcohol-friendly so they can compete for business with their “wet” neighbors. Stores compete with one another. The Giant in East Bradford sits next to a state Fine Wine & Good Spirits store in the Bradford Plaza shopping center. Two miles away on Paoli Pike is another State Store.

Michael Lynch,  East Bradford’s township manager, said he has perceived little passion from residents on the alcohol issue. Township officials have not taken a position, Lynch said, and are “letting the voters speak for themselves.”

Following a residents’ campaign for a referendum, voters in Swarthmore Borough, Delaware County, also will decide next month whether to allow alcohol sales. A similar question is on the ballot in Pine Creek Township, Jefferson County, in Western Pennsylvania, and in North Towanda Township and Sylvania Borough, in Bradford County, up north.

All Wegmans stores in Pennsylvania, none of which are in dry towns, sell beer and wine, and some have pub restaurants that also sell spirits. Acme sells beer and wine in 11 of its 53 Pennsylvania stores, but a spokeswoman declined to discuss the chain’s plans, citing the coming initial public offering of its parent company, Albertsons. Whole Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

Weis Markets opened its 50th café that sells beer and wine a few weeks ago outside Harrisburg. When asked whether Weis would consider working toward a referendum if one of its stores were in a dry town, spokesman Dennis Curtin said: “If a township is dry, we respect the laws and regulations of the local township.”

Local ordinances have never been an issue for Weis, which continues to add alcohol to its offerings.

“The bottom line,” Curtin said, “is we’re by no means done.”

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