Edison Neighborhood Association reaches across the state to fight proliferation of liquor stores

A lot of work has gone into making Howard's Party Store a place people want to shop and one where they feel safe to visit. But all that effort could be jeopardized if the Michigan state legislature does nothing to restore a rule once enforced by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission that kept a half-mile between establishments that sell alcohol. 

It's part of a battle that the Edison Neighborhood Association has been fighting hard and uphill for two years. At issue is an already high concentration of businesses that can sell beer, wine, and liquor in the center of the neighborhood. At least 10 businesses with liquor or beer and wine licenses are located in a small area surrounding Washington Square.

And no guarantees that will be the upper limit for them. 

What's happened is the Michigan Liquor Control Commission began efforts to rescind the "half-mile rule"  in late 2016. By early 2017, The Liquor Control Commission had eliminated the rule expediently and without a public hearing, calling the restrictions "protectionist and anti-competitive."

The MLCC’s foreward to their Administrative Rules and Related Laws states the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s "guiding philosophy is to make alcoholic beverages available while regulating their sale and distribution in order to protect the rights and interests of Michigan citizens. The Commission believes this can be accomplished most effectively through selective licensing and strict enforcement."

Now Edison residents who foresee a proliferation of stores and other businesses that sell alcohol since the rule has been rescinded are asking at what point did the citizens of Michigan, and specifically the Edison Neighborhood, no longer fall under regulations "to protect the rights and interests of Michigan citizens"? 

Kalamazoo does have its own rules. One is that alcohol retailers cannot be closer than a half-mile of each other. In June of 2014, the city approved an ordinance creating a one-half-mile distance between package liquor stores, gasoline stations that sell alcoholic beverages, and convenience stores that sell alcoholic beverages. 

But the half-mile separation does not apply to grocery stores that have incidental alcohol sales. And since the Liquor Control Commission has loosened its restriction on the required stock which must be maintained to sell beer and wine, the city says it has seen a noticeable increase in licenses under review at the MLCC for convenience stores and gasoline stations.

"The MLCC has also been approving licenses even when the City has submitted a letter of objection stating it is not legal per our separation distances," says Kalamazoo Zoning Administrator Peter Eldridge.

So does the MLCC want to hear a local municipalities stance on where such businesses are located? The MLCC’s Chairman, Andy DeLoney has stated previously, “the commission always seeks public comment when granting a new license, and has many times denied a license because the neighborhood opposes it,” yet, in another statement DeLoney gave at a  hearing on enforcing the rule when asked he took it into consideration if a local government had rules about liquor, his reply was, “No” -- that he only looks at state laws and does not pay attention to local regulations. 

The Edison Neighborhood, with a population of 8,759 people, currently has more than 10 locations where alcohol can be purchased within its 2.76 square miles. There's also a brewery and a beer and wine store located at Burdick Street and Vine, directly across from the Edison Neighborhood. And a distillery has been proposed for the corner of Portage Road and Lake Street. The concentration is particularly acute at the center of the neighborhood.

Fighting the spread of more businesses selling alcohol is a battle that has been taken up by the Edison Neighborhood Association on behalf of the neighborhood. 

Gerry Hoffmann, long time Edison Neighborhood resident and president of the Edison Neighborhood Association, says they got involved when, “Yet another proposed liquor store wanted to buy a now-closed drive-through beer store location at the corner of Alcott and Portage Road, to sell hard liquor. However, since beer is being sold at the Citgo Gas station less than half-mile away, the proposed buyers of the Alcott/Portage location needed zoning approval to proceed. That’s when the ENA acted. 

"We produced a large map showing that the area was already 'awash with alcohol,' and presented it to the Zoning Commission," Hoffmann says, "along with arguments stating, 'local public safety officers will attest, liquor stores are a magnet for crime, such as drug deals, prostitution and loitering for other criminal purposes, and that problem is multiplied if alcohol stores are located too closely together, providing a shopping mall of criminal activity.'"

Hoffmann then says with a satisfied smile on his face, “Although the property owners had complained that they would not able to sell the property without including a liquor license, the zoning commission agreed on an almost unanimous vote to reject the liquor store application.”  The site sold in just a few months to a car dealer, Forbes Motors, LLC

With a victory for one less alcohol store in the Edison, the fight continued at another level. This time, a fight that if won, would keep the half-mile rule in place by making it a law.

Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, a nonprofit group representing both big and small store owners, began a legal fight against the MLCC’s lightning-fast decision to rescind the half-mile rule, stating that such a change should require a public hearing. Due to the legal fight, the MLCC reinstated the rule and a hearing took place in Lansing at the MLCC on Sept. 6, 2017.

Hundreds of representatives of the public, including the ENA and small business store owners, were present and testified to the need for the half-mile rule. 

Only three representatives spoke in favor of rescinding the half-mile rule, all big box store representatives--7-11 from Texas, Kroger from Ohio, and CVS from Rhode Island. 

The MLCC ignored the Michigan voices, listened to big box stores from out of state, and the half-mile rule was officially rescinded April 17, 2018.

Present at the MLCC hearing to stand up for the half-mile rule were Vikrant “Vik” Bawa, then-owner of Howard’s Party Store and Gurvinder “Gary” Singh, the present owner of Howard’s. Bawa says, “I sold the store to Gary in April of this year, but I am still here every day, helping,” as he looked at Gary and they both smiled. Bawa said when he purchased the store in 2015, getting the store in better shape was a long, hard road to travel.  

He says that when he and his wife sat down with friends to dinner one evening, his wife said she feared every day he could be shot and wouldn’t make it home from work. Since then, Bawa and Singh have partnered with the ENA and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to deter crime, loitering, and to keep the neighborhood surrounding the store safe. 

A liquor bottle left behind on Reed Street near Portage Road.When asked if the addition of new alcohol stores decreases their business, Bawa replied, “With each new store, one will lose at least 5 percent in sales.” They both say it’s a daily battle to keep the store nice, but well worth it. One could tell by the patrons entering that positive relations have been built in the neighborhood. 

The next turn in the story of the regulations came in the Michigan Senate. The ENA contacted other neighborhood associations, in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City.  A series of emails explained the issue and sought to approach Lansing as a statewide force.

On Dec. 8, 2017, the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee held a hearing on the half-mile rule that was being proposed for adoption as a state law. The public, small business owners, and other Michigan-based speakers spoke in favor of the bill to reinstate the half-mile law. The bill sent to the Senate floor and a week later was overwhelmingly passed. The bill then went to Chairperson of the House Regulatory Committee Rep. Brandt Iden’s desk, where it languished.

At a constituent coffee, Iden, was asked if he would now allow a vote on the bill in his committee. Iden replied he didn’t think it would pass, so it would be a waste of time to bring it to vote. 

His inaction has left those paying close attention to the rule change wondering if his belief that the bill would not pass was influenced by the $10,000 Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association donation to his last campaign or a $23,000 donation Iden received this year from the MBWWA, Iden’s third top donor since 2015.

Second Wave Media asked Iden by email why he had not allowed the committee to vote on the bill, and if he will allow a vote in the lame-duck session. He was also asked if he knew of the already high concentration of businesses allowed to sell beer, wine, and alcohol in the neighborhood.

His reply, “I am not allowed to discuss any campaign-related items with State resources.” 

Iden’s opponent, Alberta Griffin, was also sent an email and a phone call was made asking her stance on the issue. Griffin did not respond.

Bills die at the end of the session. If the "half-mile law" is not passed by the regulatory committee and full house before the end of 2018, the effort would have to begin all over. When the opportunity is lost, it is hard to start over. 

So, in essence, a rule that is made to keep a neighborhood safe, to lessen the chance of crime, and especially to keep as little alcohol available to underage drinkers, is very easily brushed off, whereas, if it were to be made law, there could be no question about keeping the safety of our children, our families, and our neighborhood closer at reach. Where rules may fail, laws will withstand.

Read more articles by Heather Gorning.

Heather Gorning is a newer resident of the Edison Neighborhood, a proud grandmother of two, and in her spare time, a Fitness Instructor at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, and now a Community Correspondent for On The Ground Edison. Heather comes from a military family and has lived in California, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Virginia.  Her favorite memories are those of Virginia. She says the scenery, the history, the people, and the summers spent completely barefoot still ring clear in her memory.  Each weekend was spent either at the ocean, camping, or at the battlefields and museums. She is looking forward to sharing her love of the outdoors and nature with her grandchildren and making a positive difference in the Edison Neighborhood.  
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