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Chain Store Beer, Wine Sales Press Some Dry PA Towns To Go Wet

Larkin Page-Jacobs
90.5 WESA

The little town of Cleona is the latest to feel some pressure to allow alcohol sales.

Nearly 700 towns across Pennsylvania are dry or partially dry, restricting the sale of beer, wine and liquor to some extent. In the greater Harrisburg region alone, 165 boroughs and townships restrict alcohol sales.

Recent changes in state liquor laws have some of these dry towns changing decades-old - sometimes near century-old - statues on prohibition laws. Most recently, efforts began this week in the borough of Cleona, Lebanon County, to bring up a vote to allow the sale of alcohol in a local Giant grocery store.

The relaxed state liquor laws have many grocers and convenience stores adding beer and wine to their shelves, leading to a rise in communities weighing the shift from dry to wet.

Battle lines drawn in Cleona

When Giant Food Stores purchased a restaurant license at a 2018 Liquor Control Board auction with the goal of opening a beer cafe in its Cleona location, the company was apparently unaware of the borough's dry status, according to Mayor Larry Minnich.

Undeterred, Giant is trying to get the ordinance changed.

At a recent borough council meeting, Minnich said the Carlisle-based grocery chain plans to circulate a petition in the community. Under the current state Liquor Code, once a petition has enough signatures, residents can vote on a referendum to abolish the dry statute once every four years.

Minnich said a petition will likely get enough signatures to force a referendum. However, the mayor added, Cleona voted against the measure while he served on borough council.

When a municipality that was dry goes wet, the PLCB does not issue any new liquor licenses. Instead, a business obtains a license from a wet municipality in the same county.

Liquor licenses cannot be transferred between counties.

Giant paid just under $200,000 for two Lebanon County liquor licenses in 2018. If Cleona voters keep Cleona dry, Giant has no other stores in the county to transfer its second license.

Not so cut and dry

While Cleona voted to stay dry in the past, that doesn't mean the community will do the same in the future. Times change, and each situation is different.

In 2017, Camp Hill residents voted nearly 73 percent in favor of overturning the prohibition on alcohol sales in restaurants and grocery stores, while 66 percent were in favor in both Biglerville and Shrewsbury.

Yet, even wet municipalities don't approve each and every liquor license transfer that comes along. Palmyra Mayor Fred Carpenter fought vigorously to reverse the borough's dry status a decade ago, but in 2017, sided with the local council in voting against allowing a Turkey Hill to sell beer because of its proximity to a school. Just last year, Lebanon city - which hasn't been dry since Prohibition was lifted in 1933 - also denied a Turkey Hill transfer over numerous safety concerns.

Even if a community is wet, liquor license transfers between different municipalities are subject to public hearings and government approval. In cases where no transfer is necessary, the addition of something such as a beer cafe must still adhere to local ordinances and state Liquor Code. And if residents are concerned about a certain establishment attempting to obtain a license, they can always petition the PLCB themselves.

So while beer seems to be hitting the shelves in just about every grocery and convenience store these days, there are options for communities that would continue to oppose the sale of alcohol.


A lot of money at stake

Since 2016, the PLCB has held seven auctions for expired alcohol licenses, the biggest winners being convenience store chain Sheetz and Giant, with competitors Weis Markets, Turkey Hill and Redner's Markets also in the mix. Between the five retailers, 110 liquor licenses costing over $18 million were obtained through auction alone. Two dozen of those are being used in central Pa.

Here's a breakdown:

Sheetz: 41 licenses - $4,392,301 spent

Giant: 35 - $8,861,908

Weis: 9 - $2,889,232

Turkey Hill: 11 - $1,277,100

Redner's: 4 - $633,331