Walmart liquor suit far from certain

2013-07-21T00:00:00Z 2013-07-21T14:42:48Z Walmart liquor suit far from certainDarren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

While the state liquor board's denying the new El Con Walmart a liquor license put smiles on the faces of opponents, it also left many wondering what the retail giant's next move will be.

Even before the cheering stopped, the speculation about a lawsuit started.

Walmart officials aren't talking. They did not respond to calls for comment, only communicating through news releases they are considering their options to provide the same services and products to midtown residents as they offer elsewhere.

But this isn't the first time Walmart has been denied a liquor license in recent years, and historically the company has not resorted to lawsuits to get its way.

Walmart has sued in only one out of a dozen cases found in a search by the Star. Most of those denials were on grounds similar to those cited by the Arizona board - wrong location and too many places already selling booze in the area.

The exception: Walmart sued the city of Chicago earlier this year after the city's liquor board denied an appeal for a license over concerns that alcohol sold at the store would create additional problems for an already overburdened police force.

The company had the option of appealing the denial to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission. Commission spokeswoman Sue Hofer said her board is reluctant to overturn a city's decision, but she declined to speculate on whether that was a factor in Walmart's decision to sue.

If Walmart is not inclined to sue, what does it do?

In the case of Portage, Wis., it tries and tries again.

Nestled in the heart of Wisconsin, the city of about 10,000 seems to fit the prototype of the small, rural communities in middle America where Walmart made its first mark.

But that hasn't stopped the city licensing board from denying Walmart a liquor license three times since 2007.

"They just kept on reapplying," said Portage City Clerk Marie Moe.

The primary reason given over the years for the denial has been that the area surrounding the Walmart is already saturated with businesses selling alcohol.

The last denial was in 2012, but that didn't diminish the company's persistence.

Moe said the company's fourth application gets a hearing this week.

Opposition to Walmart selling liquor spans the country.

Municipalities as diverse as Worcester, Mass., Marietta, Ga. and Sheridan, Wyo., have all denied licenses, but in most of those cases the retailer hasn't appealed or decided what course of action to take yet.

Part of the reason might be some states, like Minnesota and Wyoming, place the decision on cities and towns whether to approve a liquor license.

In Arizona, however, cities and towns can only make recommendations to approve or deny. The ultimate decision lies with the state board.

"There's no provision in (Wyoming) statute for any other action by the applicant that was going to get that license," said Sheridan City Clerk Scott Badley.

While businesses with existing licenses can appeal a revocation in court, Badley said, new applicants have no such recourse and must accept the decision.

Liquor license denials aren't a new trend for Walmart, said one longtime critic of the nation's largest retail chain. But they have become a tool that local community activists employ in the battle to rein in the mega-retailer when it arrives in their neighborhoods.

"It's not the most frequent issue that's raised," said Al Norman, author of three anti-Walmart books. "But it's among a series of issues that neighbors will raise to try to soften the impact of these stores."

If there is an increase in denials, Norman said, it's likely due to larger pushback Walmart receives from the communities it builds in.

"When I started fighting Walmart in 1993, the battles against them were (rare)," he said. "Twenty years later … almost three out of four Walmarts get challenged these days. … It's very common now for these projects to attract controversy. It's like a magnet for opposition."

THE STORY SO FAR

The Arizona State Liquor Board voted unanimously July 11 to deny a liquor license to the new El Con Mall Walmart after an eight-hour public hearing packed by about 80 midtown residents. Board members listed an undue disruption to the neighborhoods surrounding the mall, at 3601 E. Broadway, and long hours of sale as some of the reasons they rejected the license.

The Tucson City Council had recommended that the state board deny the liquor license for the El Con store, which is scheduled to open this fall.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at ddaronco@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Featured businesses

View more...

Deals, offers & events

View more...