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City denies transfer of liquor license to discount giant
Riverton businessman Bob Woodward raised a strong objection to granting Walmart's request. Photo by Eric Blom

Riverton council denies transfer of liquor license to discount giant

Jun 5, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Riverton City Council squashed Walmart's plans to sell alcohol in a 4-3 vote Tuesday. The store was seeking a transferred retail liquor license from the China Panda restaurant.

China Panda currently has a full retail liquor license, allowing it to sell alcoholic beverages with its food, in a bar setting or in packages.

Walmart had to acquire an existing license because Riverton has two more retail liquor licenses than state statute allows. China Panda concurrently applied for a restaurant liquor license, which it would have wanted if Walmart received its retail permit.

Annexations of stores with retail licenses brought Riverton's total above the state limit, councilman Lars Baker said.

Council discussion

Councilors Mary Ellen Christensen, Jonathan Faubion, Eric Heiser and Baker and Mayor Ron Warpness spoke against the transfer.

Many councilors thought the shift would be like adding a liquor store to Riverton, because Walmart would sell far more than China Panda does.

"One of the city council goals is correcting the liquor problem," said Christensen. "I don't know if adding another liquor store is going to help with that."

Councilman Richard Gard and Todd Smith cited concerns about treating businesses equally and said denying the permit would not help with alcoholism.

"I think we should give everybody a shot to do what they choose to do. That's America," Gard said. "I don't think it has anything to do alcoholism, but I do think it has to do with protectionism."

"(Walmart) followed all the rules. ... They're not doing anything illegal in providing a place to purchase alcohol," Smith said. "Not transferring the license is not going to solve the public intox problem in our community."

The vote was closer than the discussion implied it would be. Heiser joined Gard and Smith in voting for the transfer while Christensen, Faubion, Heiser, Baker and Warpness voted against it.

After the council denied the transfer, it voted down China Panda's restaurant liquor license as a matter of formality.

"I'm sure Walmart is disappointed in the council's vote," said Randall Reed, a lawyer for Walmart. "It still looks forward to addressing some of the concerns the council had addressed, the community liquor issues."

Walmart's comments

Walmart officials and liquor store owners also aired their thoughts during a public hearing.

"My plan here is convenience for the customer, it's choice for the customer, it's offering a level playing field," Griffin said, noting other supermarkets in town also sell alcohol. "I'm not trying to run a high-volume liquor store."

Griffin's plan was to install a 1,500 square foot "liquor box" at the back of the store with locking sliding glass doors, floor to ceiling walls and many security cameras, he said.

"I'm offering much more security than any other establishment in town can offer," Griffin said.

Reed explained state statute and said Walmart had submitted the application for a liquor license transfer with the appropriate fees.

"None of the five statutory requirements say anything about competition," he said. "To base the denial of the transfer based on restricting competition would be unlawful."

Woodward's Liquor Store proprietor Bob Woodward said granting Walmart a liquor license would devastate his business.

Other liquor store owners cited concerns about security at the large retailer and said existing stores already meet Riverton's needs.

Flashpoints

During the public comment period, Walmart market manager Jeremiah Griffin said his company had considered donating money to the Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center.

Woodward spoke after Griffin said his company gave $44,000 to charities in Riverton.

"I can't come in here and bribe the city council and say I'll give money to the crisis center," Woodward said. "I'm an independent. I'm not talking about billions in sales; I'm talking about thousands."

Warpness said to Woodward, "I think 'bribe' is a strong word."

Christensen said the move to donate arose from a meeting with the mayor, and Walmart was being charitable to garner the council's support, and Warpness's in particular. She also said Walmart officials had indicated they would support increasing the state beer tax after meeting with the mayor, which is an issue Warpness supports.

"The transfer of this liquor license shouldn't go to the highest bidder," she said. "I think we're putting special interests above public safety. It's purely questionable."

The mayor said he took exception Christensen's thinking.

"This transfer was not contingent on that support (for raising the beer tax)," he said. "I made the same plea to our local liquor distributors."

Throughout the discussion, Warpness said he opposed the transfer.

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Riverton City Council