By DAVID KRIER
Emotions ran high last Wednesday night when the city’s Protection and Welfare committee met to consider a beer permit for a proposed Kwik Trip store at the intersection of Highways 61/133. Hans Zietlow, Director of Real Estate for Kwik Trip, outlined plans for the $3.5 million, 6,000 square-foot, 24-hour brick store, which he said would employ about 20-25 people.
“We have a purchase agreement here in the city of Boscobel for land on which to build a new store,” Zietlow said. “We don’t have any stores in southwest Wisconsin that don’t sell beer, so it would be a pretty big deal for us.”
“The big question is, what would happen if you did not get approval for beer?” asked committee chair Barb Bell.
“We probably wouldn’t build the store,” he replied. “Small towns are hard to make it in. We would have a couple of options. We could not build it. We could wait until the ordinance changes. We could probably go to the township. Most municipalities that face this eventually change. Some people say it’s a safety issue or whatever. Really it comes down to a matter of free market versus protectionism.”
City Attorney John McNamee informed the audience that the city of Boscobel currently does not have an ordinance limiting the number of retailers that can sell beer for off-premises consumption.
“Just for everyone’s information, we do not have an ordinance that prohibits issuing this license,” he said.
“They just haven’t been approved in the past,” added City Administrator Arlie Harris.
That kicked off a brief free-for-all discussion among audience members arguing about past laws, past license non-approvals, and a 1992 non-binding referendum in which voters decided not to expand the issuance of more Class “A” beer licenses for off-premises consumption.
“So you’re going to follow, like Fennimore and stuff, where their community is falling apart? You’re going to follow them, aren’t you,” said John Borzick, owner of Tall Tails Sports & Spirits, one of two liquor stores currently operating in Boscobel.
Mayor Steve Wetter asked Police Chief Todd Stenner if his department had any problems with issuing the permit.
“Well, I think any time you deal with the possibility of having more alcohol available to people, let alone juveniles, you know we’re not going to be for it,” Stenner said. “I think anytime you have more alcohol available, you’re going to have an increase in the number of incidents, but I think for this matter the police department is more than available and able to investigate any incidents that come up.
“As a citizen, do I see a problem with the alcohol being at Kwik Trip or any of the other stores as a problem? No I really don’t, because for other community police departments in our area it’s not a significant amount of calls or incidents that they have at these places.”
Zietlow said that Kwik Trip does not sell beer to juveniles and does its own compliance checks through a program called Secret Shoppers. Violators are immediately terminated.
“We do that as an internal sting to keep the quality up, probably about 20 times a year at each store,” he said. “We also do random drug testing and have zero tolerance on theft. Because of that we have a relatively happy, squeaky clean company. We pride ourselves on being good corporate citizens and being involved in the community when we can.”
Stenner said the Grant County Sheriff’s Department does compliance checks in the county, “and there’s nothing saying that we couldn’t do our own compliance checks. If we’re going to have a large number of retailers selling alcohol, we could do the same thing.”
Zietlow stressed the economic benefits of having a Kwik Trip store in the community. The 10-12 full-time employees in Boscobel would receive “a good, living wage” as well as health insurance and profit sharing after five years.
“Whoever runs this store would probably be one of the more highly paid people in the city of Boscobel,” he said.
Committee member Roger Brown asked Zietlow what the time frame was for the proposed Boscobel store.
“It takes about three months to build one,” Zietlow responded. “I would move this one up in the schedule. I certainly would like to have it up and open before the fall. We’re working on our construction schedule right now, and I would like to close on these properties as soon as possible.”
Former Boscobel Director of Economic Development Ray Saint, who is also the co-owner of Hometown Liquor on Highway 61, said he was in a tough spot, but wondered why Kwik Trip wouldn’t build in Boscobel if it couldn’t sell beer.
“Really it’s a matter of fairness,” Zietlow said. “We live in a society that’s a free and open market, and we are a company that believes in a free market.”
Zietlow said the only opposition Kwik Trip receives when it proposes a new store in a community is from competitors like liquor stores and other gas stations or convenience stores. Representatives of most of those Boscobel businesses were in attendance at last Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’ve never gone to a council meeting and spoken against the competition, because I think that’s wrong,” he said. “I think everyone under the Constitution should have the same rights to do business. It’s a matter of what a person believes about the free market.”
Saint said he agreed with Zietlow about a free and open market.
“I’m not against competition,” Saint said. “There’s been plenty of competition in this town with two liquor stores for the past 30 years.”
Saint wanted to know why members of the Council voted to deny beer licenses for Piggly Wiggly and Cenex when they requested them in July 2009.
“There wasn’t someone here to answer my questions,” replied Ald. Nancy Sanger.
David Neal of New Horizons (Cenex) said he was denied then, and wondered what the difference was now.
“I know why I would vote to let (Kwik Trip) come in here,” responded Ald. Gary Kjos. “You’re talking 20-25 jobs over how many years. Just think of the money that would pump into the city. Besides that beautiful building that sits out there that should be torn down one of these years. Instead, somebody is going to build a nice new building right there, and the tax dollars that will be coming into the city is about $20,000 I would guess a year. I think we’re talking some economics, right?”
Mayor Wetter said that Boscobel is becoming a tourist destination, “…and what goes better with tourism than stopping and having beer. I’ve been all around the state of Wisconsin and everywhere you stop they have beer at these places.
“I can remember years ago when we had one bank in town, now we have four, and they’re all doing fine. With the liquor stores and bars, I believe we have six. We’ve got eight churches, so should we stop having churches. How many is too many? We have got to take the next step, move forward, and quit protecting people. It’s legal; it’s free enterprise. We’ve got to move on with this.”
As for the Kwik Trip permit, McNamee said the decision was at the discretion of the Council, and not bound by legal statute.
“I don’t know how equal protection works into that, but if they have sound reasons for denying then they can refuse, but they have to have sound reasons and they have to give you written notice of why you’re not doing it,” he said.
“Can not be capricious or arbitrary,” added Harris.
Alderman Pete Huibregtse said the Council in 2009, which he was a part of, “bought into the argument about the availability of alcohol to children and things like that,” and denied Cenex. “At the time I thought and my own personal feeling was the same as it is now. It’s not the city council’s responsibility to decide and make a free trade decision like that as to who can sell and who can’t sell, who can come into town and do business, and who can not come into town and do business, but the decision was made anyway.”
Bell said the decision was “too big” for the Council to act on and should be brought to the public for a referendum. “We can’t speak for all the people,” she said. “I feel that it should be up to the people of Boscobel to vote.”
“You were elected to make decisions,” said Harris.
Jen Borzick of Tall Tails wanted to know what happened to the 1992 referendum results in which voters decided not to expand the number of beer licenses in the city of Boscobel. “How do you say a referendum didn’t happen? How does the city lose a referendum that happened?” she asked. “That’s very concerning.”
Quentin Hurtz, former owner of Quent’s Liquor, now Tall Tails, questioned Harris about what happened nearly 22 years ago when the referendum took place. “Arlie, if you recall, you were the manager at Dick’s (Supermarket) at the time,” Hurtz said. “Do you recall that?’
Replied Harris, “I can tell you what happened, the very same thing that has happened every single time that this has come up. The liquor stores rally the troops and it scares the hell out of the elected officials. That’s what happens every single time.”
This time could be different.
After more discussion—both pro and con, and much of it repetitive—a straw vote was taken among the Council members in attendance to allow Kwik Trip a beer license. The vote was 5-2 in favor with Ald. Sarah Strang absent. Voting in favor of granting Kwik Trip a beer license were Nancy Sanger, Roger Brown, Milt Cashman, Pete Huibregtse and Gary Kjos. Voting against were Barb Bell and Brenda Kalish.
The straw vote was agreed upon as a recommendation to the Council, which will consider the matter at its meeting on Monday, Feb. 3.
“Legally, if we deny them, we have to have a sound ground, right?” asked Brown. “And we don’t really have one, with what we currently have. So if we deny it is there a potential for legal action?”
“From what I’ve heard, I haven’t heard any reasonable basis to deny,” replied McNamee. “If you vote to deny you have to have good reason, just cause, and you have to put it in writing. I would be very uncomfortable going into court and saying the reason we denied Kwik Trip an application was because 21 years ago somebody held a referendum. It has to be specific to the applicant. Each applicant has to be considered on its own merits.”