BOSTON — Package stores are gearing up for what could be a costly ballot battle with a multinational convenience store chain that wants to lift the state’s decades-old restrictions on alcohol licenses.
A proposal by Cumberland Farms, which has cleared the first of several hurdles to get on the 2020 ballot, would lift the state’s cap on off-premise beer and wine licenses until they are eliminated in 2024. It would also establish a new kind of liquor license specifically for “food stores” and give cities and towns authority to decide how many licenses to issue.
Supermarkets are allowed to sell beer and wine but each company is limited to seven licenses, which increases to nine next year under a 2011 pact between “packies” and food stores.
Cumberland Farms says the cap on liquor licenses, dating to the end of Prohibition, gives package stores an unfair advantage. The Westborough company, which is being bought out by U.K.-based EG Group, has about 200 stores in Massachusetts, but only seven can sell beer and wine, including one in Ipswich.
“Local authorities have their hands tied by state law, which dictates how many licenses each town — and each company — can have,” said Matt Durand, the company’s government affairs director, said in a statement. “It’s time to change these archaic laws in a safe and thoughtful way, and if we need to take that to the ballot, I think the voters will agree.”
Package store owners warn that the move would saturate the beer and wine market with big competitors, driving mom-and-pop stores out of business.
“We’re deeply concerned about what this would do to our industry,” said Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, which represents hundreds of liquor stores. “This is a unilateral action being taken by an international corporation, which is aimed at taking control of the state’s marketplace.”
Mellion said his group and two others — the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts Inc., and Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts — filed objections to the ballot question, but it was ultimately certified by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. Supporters of the question have more hurdles to clear, including gathering 80,239 voter signatures by Dec. 4.
More than 150 independent package stores have gone out of business in the past year, with owners selling their licenses and cashing out, according to the association.
“They can’t compete against the big chains now, I can’t imagine what would happen if this gets approved,” Mellion said. “It will mean the end of small businesses in this industry.”
Bob Selby, owner of Kappy’s Liquors, said “packies” are struggling in a marketplace increasingly crowded by big retailers.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “A lot of package stores have spent years building up the value of their liquor licenses, so something like this would really hurt.”
It isn’t the first time the state’s voters have been asked to weigh in the divisive issue.
In 2006, voters rejected a ballot question by supermarkets to lift the liquor license caps to allow wine sales, keeping in place a three-store maximum rule.
Several years later, the Massachusetts Food Association gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot but agreed to drop the measure when the Legislature passed a law to gradually increase the number of liquor licenses that can be held by a single company.
Brian Houghton, senior vice president for governmental affairs and communications for the association, said its members plan to stay neutral in the latest fight.
Money at stake
Jon Hurst, president of the Massachusetts Association of Retailers, said he expects his membership — which does not include Cumberland Farms — to be split.
“We represent some small package and convenience stores that aren’t looking for more competition,” he said, “but we’ve got larger retailers that might be interested in selling beer and wine.”
The 2020 question is likely to draw a crush of spending by supporters and opponents, both of which have extensive resources.
In the 2006 booze battle, the sides spent $13 million, according to campaign finance records. At the time it was the most costly ballot question in state history.
“There’s certainly a lot of money at stake for both sides,” Hurst said. “There’s no question there’s going to be winners and losers on this one if it makes it onto the ballot.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.