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Lipstick on a Pig 

The OLCC wants to modernize with beer and wine sales. Critics just want them gone.

In a deceptively simple administrative change, Oregon residents may soon be able to buy a cold six-pack along with their favorite bottle of booze.

Last week, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) approved a policy change to commingle beer and booze, which traditionally have been housed in separate retail outlets—one private, the later managed by state-controlled outlets. While such administrative changes may not seem like a big deal—just packaging beer and booze under the same roof—in actuality, grocers worry that the strategy may be part of a bigger chess game—and an attempt by the beleaguered OLCC to stay relevant.

Under the new rules, liquor outlet agents can apply for the necessary permits and, assuming they have the space, start selling beer and wine.

This may not seem like news to those who have been buying beer at the West Bend Liquor store for over a year now. But that particular liquor outlet is special—and not just because it's the only place to buy booze west of Third Street. Since June 2012, West Bend Liquor has been operating as one of only four test stores throughout the state, set up to gauge whether selling beer and wine would be a feasible and popular option. The experiment proved a success.

"Overwhelming, it's a really positive change," said Christie Scott, an OLCC public affairs specialist. "Really, it's just the first step of many in improving the overall shopping experience for all of our customers." The Oregonian reports that revenues at the four select stores jumped by an average of 12 percent, compared with 7.8 percent statewide.

The possible addition of beer and wine to liquor shelves isn't the only change to come out of the OLCC, the state's liquor control agency. Board members also opted to open up 16 contracts that would allow grocers to add liquor to their shelves as a store-within-a-store model (similar to how the liquor store in Ray's was once run). The OLCC has already begun receiving applications from interested business owners. Additionally, and in a move that will affect Bend, the OLCC just approved the creation of a bottle redemption center, which will be centrally located at Northeast Second Street.

But the OLCC's moves to modernize have not impressed critics who want to see an end put to the state's liquor sales monopoly.

"It's such a half step," said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, of the OLCC's recent changes. "It's an admission that their model doesn't work anymore."

Gilliam's group wants to see liquor sales privatized. Specifically, he wants grocers and other corporations, like Costco, to be able to sell booze—and share in its lucrative profits—if they so choose. To make that happen he's working to get an initiative on the 2014 ballot that would do just that—something similar to what Washington state voters approved last November.

"We're in the middle of doing our homework to see if we can make it work," said Gilliam. "We're already halfway there." Asked if the OLCC's recent policy changes provided any fuel to the privatization fire, Gilliam laughed. "We already have the desire. We're 100 percent there."

Gilliam then outlined the challenges that face liquor agents who hope to start dealing in beer and wine. First, there's the issue of money. Unlike booze, retailers must pay for beer and wine upfront—there's no credit system. That means dropping several thousand when the beer delivery guy shows up. Second, most agents would need to add costly refrigeration for the beer, because no one wants warm beer to go.

"They still haven't made the case as to why they need to be in the retail market," Gilliam said of the OLCC. "They need to focus on licensing, and not be involved in this other stuff that they're in." As for the OLCC's recent changes, Gilliam says he's wholly unimpressed.

"It's like putting lipstick on a pig."

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