Battle brewing over license for liquor store in midvalley | AspenTimes.com
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Battle brewing over license for liquor store in midvalley

Basalt used to have its share of fights fueled by liquor, but none quite like what’s happening now.

Old-timers recall the days when hippies, ranchers and miners would roll out of the Midland, Two Rivers and Fryingpan bars at closing time and mix it up in the streets. Today’s fight is much more civil but no less intense.

Two liquor stores in the El Jebel-West Basalt area are enlisting their customers’ help to try to prevent a third from opening in their immediate neighborhood. El Jebeverage and El Jebel Liquors want to prevent a proposed liquor store from opening in the Willits subdivision.

El Jebeverage is located next to the El Jebel City Market. El Jebel Liquors is located across the street in the Crawfords’ mall. The Willits liquor store would be just upvalley from City Market, where two commercial buildings are under construction.

The existing liquor stores are encouraging customers to sign a petition opposing the opening of a new liquor store. The petition is on their counters. Clerks will talk about the issue but they aren’t particularly pushy about getting customers to sign.

The Willits Liquor Store owners, who include subdivision developers Michael Lipkin, Paul Adams and Clay Crossland, are fighting back with a professional survey of residents in the midvalley area. They hope results show that residents say the demand exists for another outlet.

Lee Leavenworth, the attorney for the Willits store, said the opponents’ efforts required the applicants to get aggressive and take the fairly unusual step of having a survey conducted.

Carving the pie

The debate boils down to numbers. The existing liquor stores claim there aren’t enough customers to carve the pie into smaller slices.

In a letter to the Basalt Town Council, El Jebel Liquors owner Gloria Deschamp noted there are 11 establishments that serve liquor on premises or sell carry-out within a two-mile radius. That’s enough liquor service for now and for the foreseeable future, she wrote.

Deschamp also contended that the liquor industry is already hurting due to the changing and ailing economy. Due to the high cost of living in the valley, many people currently don’t have much disposable income, she said.

“Body counts” are also down, according to Deschamp. Fewer customers are coming through the door as more homes in the area become vacation residences. She said that has hit businesses that sell liquor hard in Basalt.

“Commercial properties within the Town of Basalt that sell or serve alcohol have realized an eight to nine percent decline over last year’s sales,” Deschamp wrote.

She urged the council to turn down the request based on the “great” damage the community would suffer if the license is approved.

The attorney for El Jebeverage, Mick Ireland, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Growing area, growing need

Leavenworth countered that a growing number of liquor stores are needed to serve a growing population. He noted that there were three liquor stores serving about 700 people within the Basalt town limits when he came to town in the late 1970s.

There are still three liquor stores operating in town even though the population has more than quadrupled through annexation and growth, he said. He wasn’t including El Jebel Liquors in his calculations because it is located outside of Basalt, in unincorporated Eagle County.

In addition to the liquor stores in the El Jebel-West Basalt area, there are two closer to downtown – Jimbo’s and Alpine Liquors.

As proof of growing demand, Leavenworth pointed to Willits itself. There are 325 single-family lots and 370 townhouses and condominiums approved in the subdivision. Only about one-third of those residences have been developed, according to the developers’ estimates.

The commercial core of Willits features 400,000 square feet of retail shops, restaurants and offices, plus another 200,000 of residential space on upper levels of commercial buildings.

One building currently under construction will house the 2,000-square-foot liquor store as well as a 3,000-square-foot general store which is seeking a license to sell 3.2 percent beer.

Feeling unwelcome

Bob Hite, who has been hired to manage both establishments, said he really doesn’t understand the opposition. He said he comes from the restaurant industry, where operators of existing establishments wish a newcomer well and welcome the competition.

Hite said his establishment would try to spur new business by selling special wines from Tuscany, Spain and Argentina. New markets aside, he thinks the competition is healthy.

“Everybody’s got a right to try to make some money,” he said.

The issue has generated enough heat to make Basalt officials uncomfortable. Jody Edwards, an attorney that advises the town, will review procedures used to make the decision with the Basalt Town Council, which also sits as the Liquor Licensing Board.

A decision on the Willits license is scheduled to be made Sept. 9.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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