Local liquor stores face a decision on Sunday sales repeal

Rocket Liquors on Chestnut Street in Virginia is one of the local off-sale liquor stores faced with a decision to open a seventh day after the state repealed a Sunday sales ban.

VIRGINIA — Jerry Christopherson, owner of Rocket Liquors in Virginia, didn’t want to talk about Sunday sales. He didn’t bristle at the subject, but it’s one he’d prefer go away.

When the Minnesota Senate passed a bill Monday to end the state’s more than century-old ban on Sunday liquor store sales, Christopherson was among the local off-sale owners unable to avoid the topic much longer.

“I was never for it, but I knew eventually it would pass,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I always said I wouldn’t be open, and I don’t want to be open, but if everyone else is open I probably will be.”

For the six days a week Rocket Liquors is open, its owner has made a living that way. If Christopherson is to open Sunday, he’ll either have to hire someone to work those days, or do it himself.

That’s the fear of many small liquor store owners: More overhead costs and not enough realized revenue to counterbalance it.

Ann Gentile, co-owner of Marge’s Liquor in Eveleth, has no plans to be open Sunday. She has a rare exception in mind, if Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve fall on Sunday, but is otherwise not interested.

“I think it’s terrible they’re passing that,” she said. “They have six days a week to buy their liquor.”

Shutting out ‘mom and pop’

Christopherson looks at lifting the ban this way: Another case where urban voices are heard over rural voices.

“That’s what seems to count,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by rural lawmakers in St. Paul. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was among those speaking out against the repeal. He referenced a city-owned liquor store in Cook that averaged $145,000 in annual revenue.

“You’re probably not going to take a vote this session that breaks more rural and urban than this,” Bakk said during debate.

Bakk voted against the Sunday sales law, as did Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, voted for lifting the ban.

In the House the vote was similar. Reps. Sandy Layman, R-Grand Rapids; Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing and Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls voted against. Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, was absent due to the birth of his child.

“If they really, really, really need alcohol, they can go down to the bar for a drink, or maybe they should go see a doctor,” Tomassoni said on the floor, calling alcohol a “destructive substance” in society.

Rural off-sale owners also worry about big box liquor stores moving in and taking away business. Walmart, while small, operates a liquor store out of its Mountain Iron location. There is also talk of a big box liquor retailer setting up in Virginia.

“When that happens, we’ll have another big box liquor store in the area,” Christopherson said. “We’ve been fortunate in not having any big ones. That will change in the next year or two.”

Last year, Virginia changed its zoning ordinance in response to the potential big box store’s arrival, said Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. in a phone interview Tuesday. The original zoning ordinance banned liquor stores and bars from operating off Chestnut Street. At the time, it was kept in place to make it easier for police to patrol one area, but was viewed as antiquated.

He called it a controversial issue at the time, passing the council 4-3, and allowing for on-sale and off-sale establishments to set up off of the main street. The vote stemmed from the envisioned Thunderbird Mall reorganization, which calls for more storefronts, and mall developers said a high-end liquor store expressed interest in the location.

“I think eventually it would have to happen, but we’re in a small community,” he said. “It can create a burden on the other business environment.”

Cuffe, who voted against the zoning ordinance change, said he wanted to postpone a vote until a project request came before the council. As of now, no liquor store has moved or signed a lease to move to the Thunderbird location.

“They’re the ones that really benefit because they already have employees working on Sunday,” Christopherson added. “It’s not much of a change for them, they just take someone and send them back to the liquor store.”

Changing attitudes

Consumer freedom and decreased government regulation over business were most cited by those supporting lifting the Sunday sales ban. Since Minnesota’s statehood 159 years ago, liquor stores were outlawed from selling on Sundays, a status quo lawmakers felt had finally run its course.

Minnesota is one of 12 state left with a Sunday sales ban. Lawmakers have made several attempts to repeal the law, but failed, even though its rules have loosened along the way. In recent years, legislators allowed Sunday sales of “growlers,” a popular beer jug and local craft breweries.

A total repeal seemed only a matter of time.

“We have heard very clearly and very loudly from Minnesotans they want this, what they view as an antiquated law changed, and we are excited to do it,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, after the House passed its version.

Christopherson sees both sides of the argument. He understands that a 75-degree, sunny summer day is the perfect weather to head to the lake, and sometimes that requires a run to the liquor store.

He also thinks repealing the ban makes more sense in other parts of the state outside of the Iron Range. He points to Duluth, for instance, which stands to gain business with residents and tourists that would normally drive across the border to Superior, Wis. That same scenario often plays out in East Grand Forks and Moorhead, which border North Dakota.

“They’ve got a different opinion than we do, of course,” he said. “I’m just disappointed. I can see their point of view, too. There’s pros and cons, just like there is in anything else.”

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