Business interests await more debate on Pa. liquor law

Privatization remains before the Legislature

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Paul Kelly's father opened the family's Brighton Road beer distributorship in 1960. Eight years later, lawmakers first considered the idea of selling beer in grocery stores.

Although more than 100 grocery stores statewide currently sell beer under restaurant licenses, not much else has changed since 1968 -- until this year. Now that a bill to revamp the way beer, wine, and spirits are sold in the state made it through the Pennsylvania House, Mr. Kelly and others in the industry believe the sweeping changes envisioned for so long could soon come to pass.

"Every time this gets hot, it gets a little bit closer," said Mr. Kelly, of Kelly's Beer in Brighton Heights. "It's my understanding that [Gov. Tom] Corbett wants this pushed through badly, so I'm sure you're going to get something."

Privatizing the sale of wine and spirits was one of the three top priorities of the governor that the state Legislature failed to deliver before it went home June 30. The two others were pension reform and transportation funding.

Proponents of the measure say it will usher Pennsylvania into the 21st century, offering shoppers better selection and prices as well as more convenience. Opponents say it could lead to alcohol abuse, harm the state's thriving small brewers, and could actually provide consumers with less choice because of the clout large national brands would have in commanding shelf space. Lawmakers from rural areas are worried that doing away with about 600 state-run spirits and wine stores would hurt their constituents.

A House bill passed in March would have given beer distributors first crack at licenses to sell wine and spirits, providing consumers with the one-stop shopping customers in many other states enjoy.

The Senate came up with a measure of its own that would have slowed the sale of the state's liquor stores, but the proposal died for lack of support. Some of the opposition came from Democrats concerned about the fate of the union workers who staff state stores.

Penn Brewery on the North Side is preparing plans in anticipation of a bill passing, marketing director Linda Nyman said. One of the biggest changes will be modifying packaging equipment so that Penn Brewery's beers can be sold in six-packs instead of just by the case.

Distributors first asked for the right to sell six-packs in 1937, according to the Malt Beverage Distributors Association, an industry group. Small brewers believe six-pack sales could encourage more beer drinkers reluctant to purchase an entire case to try more of the North Side company's beers.

"We're all sort of expecting that the bill will pass in the fall," Ms. Nyman said.

That could give beer distributors the opportunity to get into the wine and spirits business, if they are willing to purchase a license, purchase an inventory of new products, and expand their stores to accommodate their expanded offerings. Mr. Kelly estimated those costs at $450,000 to $500,000.

Despite the price tag, "I don't see where we can really turn it down," he said.

"There's still a lot of factors that have to come to light before we can come to a reasonable decision," Mr. Kelly said.

One of them is whether he will be able to deliver wine and spirits to his hotel and tavern customers.

Lisa Colabrese, who along with her husband and another partner purchased Ingomar Beer in McCandless three years ago, agreed.

"We probably would have to do something like that," Ms. Colabrese said. "It's going to be a huge investment. ... Our building is so small. We're packed to the gills right now."

electionspa - state - businessnews - libations

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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