The defeat of a measure in a state Senate committee last week could represent a setback for those working to bring a grocery store to downtown Tulsa.
Senate Joint Resolution 62 would have called for a vote of the people on whether to allow grocery stores in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties to sell wine and strong beer. Authored by Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, the measure was killed by a 5-4 vote in the Senate's Business and Labor Committee.
Rice was disappointed by the vote, indicating it deals a serious blow to his effort to bring a Whole Foods location to his district in downtown Oklahoma City.
Whole Foods and other so-called boutique grocery stores such as Trader Joe's and World Market rely on the relatively high profit margin that comes from beer and wine sales as part of their business plan. Those who have tried to bring boutique groceries to the downtowns of the state's two largest cities expressed frustration with the vote, characterizing it as anti-economic development.
"We had a lot of momentum outside the Legislature," Rice said, noting his measure had the support of the state's two largest newspapers, as well as several prominent business leaders who realized its worth as a quality-of-life issue that would help in the state's constant battle to prevent members of its creative class from moving outside the state.
In an examination of what it would take to land a grocery store for downtown Tulsa, Urban Tulsa Weekly reported in its Cover Story for the July 23-29, 2009 issue, a number of developers and city officials were particularly interested in landing a store along the lines of Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.
Boutique grocery stores are thought to be a good fit for downtown areas because their footprint is smaller than a typical supermarket and because their inventory largely consists of gourmet, organic or other unusual choices that appeal to urban dwellers--exactly the kind of residents who are drawn to downtown loft living. Such a store would seem to fit in well in the Blue Dome district, especially as part of a mixed-use development, according to supporters of the idea.
But Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, who voted against the measure, defended his decision.
"There were several reasons I opposed the resolution," he said. "I don't oppose the idea. The idea has got merit. But Sen. Rice's measure is so full of holes, it didn't seem like we were far enough along to pass it on down."
Newberry said one of his objections dealt with the fact that the measure essentially would have created a specialty class of stores that were allowed to sell wine and strong beer, while excluding such establishments as grocery stores or convenience stores.
"In my estimation, that created an unfair advantage," he said.
He also said that before any measure is passed, allowing for the sale of wine and strong beer outside package stores, state officials need to work out the details with the state Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission in terms of what hours and days those beverages can be sold.
"The ABLE Commission is how we regulate who's selling what," Newberry said. "Package stores are restricted to certain hours and restrictions on who can work there. I had a lot of questions about how you incorporate this in a general market, and they weren't answered. The legislation didn't address that."
The defeat of the measure could have an immediate impact on Rice's attempts to land a boutique store for his district in Oklahoma City. He said Whole Foods officials have signed a letter of intent to open a location in Oklahoma City next to the Chesapeake Energy campus, provided the city was able to meet certain conditions.
"That's now put on hold, perhaps for many, many months," he said.
"If this had passed, it would have sealed the deal. We would already have it done by now."
Rice's disappointment was echoed by many of those who believe the inability of downtown Tulsa to attract a grocery store is a strong negative for a district that is trying to draw thousands of new residents.
"I think it's terrible," developer Michael Sager said. "The largest established chain groceries are already here. We cannot attract a Trader Joe's or any of the boutique grocery stores to Oklahoma over the beer and wine issue."
Sager, who is developing the First Street Lofts on the north side of downtown, said, "I'd like to have the first Trader Joe's in downtown Tulsa in my neighborhood. I've lived in California and other places, and I didn't see people in the parking lots of these stores committing heinous acts because they could buy a bottle of wine."
Former District 4 City Councilor Eric Gomez, whose district included downtown, described the vote as an antiquated move.
"This is something that should happen," he said. "We are preventing free trade ... This is a huge barrier to competition in Oklahoma. It's incredibly stifling. I don't think the people who voted against it fully understand what planning needs to advance the city of Tulsa. They're not looking out for what's best for the state of Oklahoma."
Gomez said he regularly visits a World Market location in Dallas when he visits that city.
"This is a boutique, healthy lifestyle-type grocery store that would be perfect to complement the development that's occurring in downtown Tulsa," he said.
Sager pointed out the measure would not have allowed for the sale of high-point alcohol, as it applied only to wine and strong beer. He said the current law forces a parent who wants to buy a bottle of wine to cook with or serve with dinner to drop off their children before going to a liquor store or leave them alone in the car while they dash inside to make a purchase.
Steve Alter, an architect associated with three Tulsa firms who has worked on a number of downtown projects, was particularly disturbed by the vote.
"It's provincial, anti-business, almost unconstitutional," he said.
Alter pointed out the freedom to go into a grocery store and buy strong beer or a bottle of wine is something that residents of any other city in the region--Kansas City, Dallas, Wichita, Fort Worth, Springfield or Joplin--enjoy, while Tulsans, and other Oklahomans, do not.
"It's very narrow minded," he said.
Newberry said such criticisms were unfounded, particularly claims that opponents of the bill are helping derail economic development efforts.
"I think it's anything but anti-business," he said of his stance. "This is an example of government trying to do a good thing, or a business-friendly thing, and it would, in fact, impact the small businessman negatively. It's dangerous when the government gets involved in favoring specialty stores over package stores."
Newberry said the measure also would have provided specialty stores another advantage over package stores in that they are allowed to offer such items as corkscrews and cups for sale while, liquor stores are not.
"They need a level playing field in order to compete," he said.
Approval of SJR 62 by the committee would have been only the first step in its journey toward becoming law. Ultimately, voters across the state would have had to approve it. Rice believes the chances of that happening would have been good, citing public opinion polls that showed 51 percent approval for the measure among Democrats and Republicans alike.
"I'm frustrated that the people who voted no didn't give it a chance to be put to a vote of the people," he said.
Rice also noted the resolution's title had been removed during consideration, a procedural step that put it on a legislative slow track, allowing plenty of time for differences over the bill to be resolved.
"There were a lot of ways we could have ameliorated people's concerns," he said.
Rice said the inability of his measure to make it out of committee likely means it can't be brought up again for two years, unless it is altered and brought back in another form. He's skeptical about the chances of that happening under the current legislative leadership.
In any event, he said he'll continue to champion the issue in the future.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "It's not a partisan issue. It's good for the state, it's good for our image, it's good for our health.
"As we try to diversify our economy and keep our creative class here, these are the things that are going to keep our young, creative, smart people just out of graduate school from leaving ... For us to be able to continue to progress, this is just a part of it."
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