Council denies favorable comment on SunMart liquor license request

After what was described as a “good discussion” by one member, the City Council voted 5-3 to deny favorable comment regarding a liquor license request from SunMart when they met in regular session Monday evening, March 17.

Voting “no” on the issue were Council members Judy Murphy, who appreciated the discussion, Angie Nolte, Mike Dougherty, Jerry Oliver and Kirby Robidoux.  Don Ferguson, Steve Scholl and Jim Wisdom voted “yes” on granting favorable comment.  

The ultimate decision is with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, following a public hearing expected within weeks.

Ferguson argued that statements regarding “saturation” in the local alcohol market are counter to the competitive nature of business.  He said decisions on where to purchase what are “up to the consumer to decide.”  Ferguson cited the Council’s recent support of a new grain facility that not only created competition, but also controversy and hard feelings.

The councilman pointed to the support SunMart has provided for many community efforts, including the Aquatic Park, new ballparks and the continuing Support Our Schools program.  Ferguson also noted Council approval of earlier alcohol sales on Sundays.  He said it appears okay to use a City facility — Prichard Auditorium — for events such as wedding receptions where alcohol is served, yet “we won’t allow” beer, wine and liquor sales “at the grocery store.”  Other communities, including Auburn and Nebraska City, do allow such sales.

Let the consumers decide where they want to buy their beer,” Ferguson said.  “I don’t see how you can stand in their way.”

Murphy, who has been consistent in opposing liquor-related issues, said she had heard from “only one” constituent who favored alcohol sales at SunMart.  She said she checked with the Liquor Commission and learned that six protests had been received at that time.  

Murphy acknowledged the positive role SunMart has played in the town and area.  However, she said she is “concerned about the message,” especially to children who may not see the alcohol sales area in the grocery, “but they’ll know it’s there.”  She pointed to the size of Falls City (about 4,300) and the number of alcohol outlets.  “I think we’re pretty well saturated with liquor outlets,” Murphy said.  “I understand the money-maker” aspect of alcohol sales, she said, but “wish another source” could be identified by SunMart.

Tom Dickman, representing SunMart’s parent company, said there is no intent to negatively impact the community.  “People (customers) have asked for it.”  SunMart manager Martin Leon said the idea is to create an “adult area” in the store for alcohol sales, with separate sales.  Leon said additional, certified staff may be hired to operate an alcohol sales area.  “We will be responsible business people,” he said.

Leon said SunMart would have safety measures in place to assure that purchases cannot be made by those under 21.  The store would continue to close at 9 p.m. and would be flexible, especially on alcohol sales hours on Sunday mornings.  Leon said he has heard “only positive comments,” including on Sundays after two adjacent churches’ services were concluded.

The two churches — First Presbyterian (northwest of the store) and First Brethren (southeast) — were not represented during the public hearing.  Proximity of churches can be an issue in the liquor license issue.  Both state statutes and a City of Falls City ordinance call for alcohol outlets to be a minimum of 150 feet from a church.  The distance is measured from exterior walls of the structures.

During the hearing, John Martin of Falls City, asked if the Brethren Church had been notified of SunMart plans.  If not, he said, it should be.  Theresa Armbruster, who manages but does not own Spirit Shoppe in Falls City, said, given the local population, there is “not a need for more alcohol sales” outlets.  

Murphy questioned the nature of the license for which SunMart has applied.  Leon said the Liquor Commission suggested the license application so that some tasting or sampling events could be held in the alcohol sales area only.  “We have no desire to sell drinks to people in the store,” said Dickman.  And Leon addressed the population aspect, saying that SunMart also serves outlying communities, which alters the numbers.

Accompanying the SunMart application was a business plan.  The plan calls for remodeling the front of the store, relocating customer service and some grocery items to construct a 40×24’ liquor store.  Plans call for a full assortment of beer, wine and spirits.  The area would be monitored by security cameras.

Robidoux said the Council wants to see businesses profit, but that the church issue would sway his support.  Leon noted the proximity of one liquor store to an elementary school in Falls City as a counter argument.

“All we can do is recommend,” Murphy said.  “Then it’s up to the Liquor Commission.”    

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