Ocean City Today

License appeal delayed until Nov.

Privatization of retail store hits snag as neighboring business disputes approval
By Brian Gilliland | Sep 07, 2017

(Sept. 8, 2017) An appeal of the decision to award a liquor license allowing the sale of beer, wine and spirits at the former county Shore Spirits in Pocomoke City has been delayed until at least late November according to court records.

The Board of License Commissioners, the local branch of the state agency charged with, among other responsibilities, awarding liquor licenses to applicants, ruled in June that there were insufficient grounds to deny the application of Kalpesh Patel over the objections of residents and surrounding business owners.

Included in Patel’s $1.175 million bid for the store and its contents was a contingency requiring the county’s support for a beer, wine and liquor license. Previously, the shop could only sell wine and liquor.

However, the enabling legislation for this type of license didn’t take effect until July 1, essentially giving Patel early access to a license other vendors couldn’t even apply for yet.

All three license commissioners — Marty Pusey, Billy Esham and Charles Nichols — blamed the state law enabling the county exit from the liquor business for the trouble.

County government, until 2014, had exclusive rights over wholesale access to alcohol in Worcester. When the sitting board of Worcester County Commissioners decided in December 2015 to exit and shutter the Department of Liquor Control, two deadlines were approved: ending wholesale operations by Sept. 2016, and retail operations by July 1 to coincide with the end of the fiscal year.

Two other businesses in the same strip mall as the Shore Spirits store have beer and wine licenses, but no liquor. One of the two, Newtown Market, was purchased after Shore Spirits had opened in 2012, and also well before the county’s exit from the liquor business was underway.

The owner, Janik Patel, had also unsuccessfully bid on the former county store, and was considering adding hard liquor to her inventory, but was unable to do so until the law took effect.

The Newtown Market owner, represented by attorney Hugh Cropper, told the license commissioners in June the business would be hurt by undue competition by the now-privatized store, and was joined by several others who saw no need for another liquor store in the first place, like Pocomoke City mayor Bruce Morrison.

However, competition alone is not enough to confirm or deny an application, and the request for the former Shore Spirits shop was approved.

The Newtown Market owner appealed that request, which is now scheduled to be heard at the end of November in Circuit Court.

This appeal has resulted in further delay of the county’s exit from the liquor control business. In fact, the county went so far as to not produce an operating budget for the department as part of negotiations this year, and was forced to prepare one.

County Treasurer Phil Thompson was directed to produce a budget for the department, which passed a public hearing on Aug. 15. The budget was set at about $1 million.

The county always expected to lose money on the closure, estimating losses between $1 and $2 million, while the former head of the department, Bobby Cowger, said that number could easily double. Final numbers for where the department stood at the end of fiscal 2017 have not yet been made available by the county.

Cowger resigned in protest for how the closure was being handled at the time.

Bids on the two county stores, especially the Pocomoke City store, beat expectations, but couldn’t account for litigation or missed deadlines.

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