RIDGWAY – Emotions ran high last week as the Ridgway Town Council held a public hearing to consider licensing a new liquor store in town.
Opponents included vocal supporters of the two existing liquor businesses in Ridgway, High Spirits Liquors on Hwy 550, and Ridgway Liquor and Wine at the corner of Sherman and South Cora streets.
First to speak at the “quasi-judicial” proceedings was Town Clerk Pam Kraft, who said that all of the applicant’s paperwork had been received, his background check by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (required of liquor store owners) had cleared. Of the town marshal’s review of a stipulation regarding “no undue concentration” of liquor stores, Kraft said, “He does not feel this would be the case.”
But undue concentration, or undue saturation, as some called it, in a town with roughly 700 age-appropriate adults, became the hot-button issue of the two-hour long hearing.
Next up was the applicant, Greg Doudt. A resident of the area since 1997, with a son attending Ridgway High School. He is the owner of Doudt Construction, a business, he said, that “given the economy, I’ve had to look outside the box.” He said his liquor store, which would be located in Riverview Plaza east of the Uncompahgre River bridge, would carry more high-end wines and liqueurs than the existing stores. “I’d like to maybe give people more options, different selections. Offer something a little more than what we have now.”
Doudt had tried, he said, to buy Ridgway Liquors from longtime owner Sharon Hindes, but the two couldn’t agree on a price. Those negotiations, and Doudt’s subsequent decision to pursue his own shop, had led to hard feelings, made manifest by the nearly full house at the Ridgway Community Center.
Tall and uncomfortable in the spotlight, Doudt continued, “My intention is not to hurt somebody, not to put somebody out of business. I want to support our community, to keep our tax dollars here.
“That’s where I’m at.”
Kraft then entered into the record two contrasting petitions, one in Doudt’s favor and one opposed. The numbers were strikingly similar. The pro-Doudt petition had 132 signatures, but only 43 (as best she could tell) were residents of the Town of Ridgway.
(Mayor Pro Tem John Clark, who ran the meeting in Mayor Pat Willits’ absence, made it clear: “For town council to take your comments as ‘evidence,’ you have to live in the town; it’s state law.”)
The petition opposed to a new store had 198 total signatures, but only 34 of those were in-town residents.
Then began the public comments, which fell, generally speaking, into arguments for the free enterprise system, and arguments for protecting existing businesses.
One speaker said, “If someone wanted to start a new restaurant, are we going to say no because we already have five?”
“Let the customers decide.” said another.
Ed Folga, owner of Willow Creek Floral, said, “I’m a teetotaler. But it’s their dollars, their business. If they have a good business plan, they’ll succeed. That’s what this country is all about, what capitalism is all about.”
On the other side of the coin, Ann Irwin, an employee of Ridgway Liquors, said she feared for her job. “I know for a fact that Karen [Vanden Branden, co-owner of High Spirits] and Sharon [Hindes] are not getting rich. If there’s a third [liquor store], one of us is going down. I could be out of a job.”
Vanden Branden, who lives in Placerville, and has run High Spirits since 1999, quoted statistics from the 2010 census numbering 700 Ridgway residents above the age of 21. “That’s not enough to support three liquor stores,” she said. “We can’t see a third store generating any more volume. It will just put one of us out of business.”
Her husband and business partner Mark Vanden Branden quoted population densities in surrounding counties as a ratio with the number of retail liquor stores. Delta County: 1,933 people per liquor store; Dolores: 1,500/store; Mesa: 2,500/store; San Miguel: 965/store; and finally, with the lowest current ratio, Ouray County: 700/store, with the existing five liquor outlets in Ouray, Ridgway and Colona.
Sharon Hindes was too emotional to walk to the front of the room to say her piece. In tears, she stood where she was, and said, “I just want you guys [council] to think about it. This is so important. It is to me.”
Doudt was given time to respond during which he touted his state-of-the-art point-of-sale system that would allow him to swipe driver’s licenses and virtually guarantee that no underage purchasers slip through.
He also countered the argument that 700 adults was too few to support another liquor store. “Seven hundred people? No, there are a lot more. People come through here from all directions. We’re a resort area….Well, this is America. You know what, we’re here for free enterprise.”
After ending public comment, Clark emphasized that the “undue concentration” issue as described in the state statute “is not about competition. It only refers to the law-enforcement resources required” to police an additional liquor store. Town Manager Jen Coates agreed, and reiterated that Marshal Scott foresaw no additional demands on his department.
Clark said, “This is obviously very difficult. We have 30 days to decide and issue a written decision of our ‘findings of fact.’” He suggested council meet within that timeframe with Town Attorney John Kappa, who was not at the hearing, to discuss the situation.
Councilor Ellen Hunter: “I’m definitely struggling with what is saturation. But I believe in free enterprise.”
Councilor Rick Weaver: “Do we really have any choice?”
Clark: “That’s why I think we need to talk with the town attorney.”
Councilor Eric Johnson: “If we deny [the application] on an emotional basis, we could be in trouble from a legal standpoint. That’s why getting John [Kappa’s] council makes a lot of sense.”
Hunter: “Will talking with John Kappa change anything, change the facts?”
Councilor Rich Durnan: “It might change the interpretation of the facts.”
After consulting Coates on procedure in a “quasi-judicial hearing,” Clark concluded: “I will state as mayor pro tem that we will take this under advisement and render our decision within 30 days.” And then he pleaded: “No attacks on one another, OK? Let’s stay together as a community.”
And the large crowd filed out of the room.