Following Gov. Tom Corbett’s announcement Wednesday that his administration would attempt to privatize the liquor and beer distribution system in Pennsylvania, local patrons and shopkeepers expressed mixed reactions to the planned overhaul.
“The grocery stores are going to put us out of business in two years, guaranteed,” said Luke Biringer of Washington, the craft beer buyer for Cappelli’s Beer & Pop on Jefferson Avenue in Washington.
Corbett’s plan would shut down more than 600 wine and spirit stores in the state and auction off 1,200 liquor licenses. Beer sales would be opened up to grocery stores, drug stores and big-box stores while the commonwealth’s 1,200 beer distributors already in existence would be allowed to obtain a license to sell liquor and wine.
Biringer said he didn’t think small beer shops like Cappelli’s would survive.
“People can buy a sixer instead of getting a full case,” Biringer said. “The only thing that will help us is selling kegs.”
Biringer said he previously worked in Tucson, Ariz., where one distributor serviced the entire city, and feared Pennsylvania would suffer the same fate.
But there was far from a consensus when it came to whether the proposed changes would be good for the industry. Biringer’s coworker, Chris Mumper, had a different outlook.
“The grocery stores will never be able to compare with our pricing,” Mumper said. “If we can also sell liquor in here, it will only benefit us.”
Corbett made his announcement Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Accompanied by state Rep. Mike Turzai, R- Allegheny County, he said the privatization initiative would lead to $1 billion in revenue for the state budget.
“I want Pennsylvanians to enjoy the same convenience that virtually every other American today has,” Corbett said.
Corbett’s plan would put in jeopardy the roughly 3,000 unionized workers employed by state-owned wine and liquor outlets. Clerks at the two Washington-area stores said they couldn’t comment because of union orders. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing the state employees, could not be reached for comment.
Pete Truszynski, of Clarksville, said he was all for the measure as he shopped for a bottle of wine at the Oak Spring Road store.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Truszynski said. “I think it will bring prices down, and there was always something that bothered me about the way the beer distributors were run. They make you buy a whole case? That’s ridiculous.”
Truszynski said he used to work in a liquor store in New York and the differences between the two states were very noticeable.
“Here, I always feel like Big Brother is watching you,” Truszynski said. “In New York, you didn’t have that at all.”
Although many of the associations representing distributors have come out against the proposal, Ed Bedwell, owner of the Beer Store and Beverage Distribution on Locust Avenue in South Strabane Township, was all for it.
“I think it could be a big win for the people of Pennsylvania, and the state of Pennsylvania,” Bedwell said. “The consumer is going to have a lot more places to buy from. The state is going to boost their budget. It seems like there’s something in it for everybody.”
Bedwell said while there certainly may be some businesses negatively affected, like small retailers that can’t afford the additional licensing fees, the time had come for alcohol sales reform.
While privatization had the potential to cut into some of his margins in the form of additional staff and equipment, Bedwell said the additional customers also presented additional opportunity.
“There’s going to be additional costs, I have no doubt in my mind about that,” Bedwell said. “I’m just going to have to make sure we sell more beer.”