Friday, May 16, 2014
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Council split regarding new pour liquor licenses in Lincoln

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[May 16, 2014]  LINCOLN - Tuesday evening, the Lincoln City council met for their Committee of the Whole Workshop. With more than a dozen items on the agenda, the council spent nearly two hours discussing their list of topics before going into executive session.

One of the hottest items on the agenda was a request from the Lincoln liquor commission to add a new classification of liquor license to the list available in the city.

Commission members Les Plotner and Dan Wheat were on hand along with business owner Cliff McCumber to state their case for the new license.

Cliff McCumber states his case in favor of the license

McCumber is the owner of the Fifth Street Food Mart in Lincoln. In his business he currently has a package liquor license and sells beer and wine for consumption off premises. In addition, the store offers convenience items and gasoline.

McCumber brought the request for a pour license to the liquor commission in April, explaining that he needed that license so he could apply to the state for video gaming. By state law gaming is allowed in taverns and restaurants that serve liquor and also at truck stops, but not convenience stores. The pour license allows convenience stores set up a separate room within their establishment where they can serve beer or wine in a glass for on-site consumption. When on-site consumption is established, the convenience store then qualifies to apply for a state video gaming license.

When talking to the commission, McCumber said he wasn’t really interested in selling glasses of beer and wine, and didn’t expect that he would sell all that much. But he wanted the license so he could get the games. He said his business needed the gaming in order to compete with two larger companies in town, Thornton’s and Beck’s on the city’s west side.

Tuesday evening he presented much the same case to the city council, telling them he was losing money on the sale of gasoline and needed the added revenue from gaming in order to keep his business going.

McCumber explained that right now regular gasoline is selling in Lincoln for $3.45 per gallon. In reality that same gallon is costing McCumber $3.54.

He also told the council that he has recently had to lay off two employees because of the closure of Salt Creek Bridge. He said the traffic diverted to the city’s west side for access to Interstate 55 has cost him 30 percent of his business.

When at the commission, McCumber was asked about other towns who have implemented a pour license. He said other towns were doing it, but he didn’t have accurate information.

Monday night before the council, he said he had continued researching it and had firsthand information from three locations.

Love’s Park has created 90 pour license. McCumber said he talked to the mayor of Love’s Park and he had nothing but good to say about it. That mayor said the license category had helped the small businesses and the community; had raised revenues for the city; and had not led to more work for the local law enforcement.

McCumber said the city of Marion had also established a type of pour license and the mayor there was also pleased with the result. In addition, the village of Benld has a wine tasting license that allowed them to have gaming as well.

During discussion, Jonie Tibbs asked why it had to be liquor. She said she knew in another town where the gaming is in a convenience store and the store gives patrons free soda’s while they play. McCumber said he could and would do the same thing. He said for himself, he doesn’t really want to serve the liquor, but he has to have it available in order to get the gaming license.

When he was speaking earlier in the evening he mentioned specifically, Thornton’s, Beck’s and Qik-n-EZ, as being shops that provided gaming. Marty Neitzel asked about this, wondering if the local Qik-n-EZ had gaming. McCumber said they did not in Lincoln, but in other towns they do.

Leslie Cooper speaks out in opposition to the license

Also on hand to speak to the council was Leslie Cooper. Cooper came forward and told the city that she felt passionately that this was not going to be good for the city. She said she had done research via the internet and had learned that there is a great deal of money to be made. She noted the Road Ranger Truck Stop chain, where one store is netting $90,000 a month from gaming.

But, she said, she still couldn’t see this as being good for the city of Lincoln. She spoke about the challenges that already exist for shoppers at some convenience stores. She said parking is an issue with folks stopping in for a fountain drink or gas as it is. Add to that, people parking for long periods of time for gaming and it would be even worse.

She also noted that there are other towns in Illinois who are not allowing this. She said the city of Dixon had denied a request for a pour license classification. She noted the city of Champaign is also denying the request.

Cooper did offer an alternative suggestion. She said instead of asking the cities to change their laws, convenience store owners should band together and go to the state and ask for a change in the gaming law.

Bob Arneaud of Qik-n-EZ weighs in

Bob Arneaud was next to speak. Arneaud is the Chief Financial Officer for Chronister Oil, the parent company of Qik-n-EZ. He confirmed that the chain store does have gaming in five of its locations with a sixth location pending. Those establishments have the gaming because they qualify as truck stops. He said should the city pass a pour license the Lincoln store will definitely be applying for one.

He told the council that the benefits to offering gaming were significant for smaller chains like Qik-n-EZ and singly owned businesses such as Fifth Street Food Mart.

Arneaud said he understood the concerns of serving liquor, but that in the case of his stores, and he was certain McCumbers as well, the key is in having well trained, sensitive employees who know when not to serve a patron.

Michelle Bauer asked Arneaud how he would accommodate the separate room requirement in the pour license, would the store have to do new construction. Arneaud said they would not. The store currently has an extra room that is being used only for storage. The company will have to do some interior remodeling but that is all.

Tibbs wondered if there were any rules pertaining to proximity of schools for the serving of liquor with gaming, and was told there were not.

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Liquor commissioners address the topic

The last people to address the council were Plotner and Wheat of the Liquor Commission.

Plotner opened by saying the intent of the commission is not to create watering holes for drunks. He said the liquor portion of this situation is not the issue. The issue is that these businesses need gaming to make money.

He added that when McCumber first came to the commission, he personally was prepared to say, “No.” However, once McCumber stated his case, Plotner better understood the reason for the request, and supported it.

It was also explained that in order to get a pour license, a business must also have a package liquor license. Wheat broke that down in dollars saying the business would have the package liquor license at a cost of $1,250 per year. They would then have to purchase the pour license at a cost of $1,125 per year. Therefore, in order to get the desired licenses the business owner would par the city a total of $2,375 annually.

It had been mentioned earlier that the commission was asking to create only five licenses. It had also been mentioned that there are 15 businesses that would be eligible. Wheat had concluded the commission felt that having the gaming in one-third of the eligible establishments was enough.

During discussion, Tom O’Donohue asked why, if the license was being established to help local business, the number was being limited to five. Plotner said that was a starting point, and if pressed with demand, the commission could ask the city to create additional licenses.

The commissioners were also asked if there was to be a drink limit on the license. Plotner said there was not, but the same “shut-off” rules would apply to this as to taverns.

The topic moves to council discussion with Conzo and Snyder weighing as well

City treasurer Chuck Conzo commented that the city did approve gaming in 2012 with a vote of 9 to 1 in favor. He said that if they city was going to allow gaming they should also offer it on a level playing field, which is what the pour license would do.

He noted that in the 2013 fiscal year, the estimated revenues to the city from gaming had been $60,000. However, the actual number came in in excess of $75,000. He said the revenue would increase with more gaming establishments, and there was no doubt the city needed the revenue.

O’Donohue noted though that there is a point of saturation where that more machines won’t add up to more money for the city.

Conzo said that was true, but he doesn’t feel the city has reached that point yet.

Bauer said she could see the possibility that people who are not playing now, might play in a convenience store. She said there could be people who would enjoy gaming, but hesitate to go into a tavern in order to play. She believes that people who want to drink will still go to the taverns and not convenience stores.

Mayor Keith Snyder also commented on the issue. Snyder serves on the liquor commission and does not support the creation of a new license. He also does not support gaming in general. He told the council that for the city to have earned $75,000 from gaming, its citizens lost a total of $1.5 million in the machines last year. Conzo countered that the $75,000 came from buying the games, not losing them. But, Wheat added to that saying that players do lose 95 percent of the time.

The city’s newest alderman, Scott Copper also spoke up against the gaming. He said that if he had been on the council a year and a half ago, he would have voted against it because he has seen first-hand the damage gambling addictions can do.

Neitzel also commented saying that this type of gambling serves the lower end of the social class, and as a result the community and the tax payers end up supporting their families thru social services.

O’Donohue brought up that at the original vote, Neitzel voted, ‘yes,’ for gaming. Would she now change her vote? Neitzel said that she believed she would, that she doesn’t support it now.

McCumber spoke up one more time saying that gaming was just like other vices that are allowed in the city, cigarettes and alcohol for example. He told the council they gained from those sales as well and “If you take all ‘sin’ off the table, you’ll lose a lot.”

During the course of the evening it was also explained why McCumber is selling gasoline below cost. Between McCumber and Arneaud they explained that the bigger corporations are setting the price locally because they can afford to lose money on gasoline. They can afford to lose money because they are supplementing their income through the convenience products and gaming. Smaller businesses such as Fifth Street Food Mart and Qik-n-EZ have to match the price in order to get gasoline sales, and hope that they will earn enough in convenience item sales to break even. Right now, neither man feels they are accomplishing this, which is why they want to add the gaming.

As the discussion began to wind down, Snyder asked the council what they wanted to do. Kathy Horn said it should go on the agenda. No one objected to this. It is expected that the council will vote on the motion at next week’s Monday night session. The council does have the right to table any item on the agenda if they feel they are not prepared to take a vote.


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