DRY, DAMP, WET: The website stateliquorlaws.com identifies the dry (blue), damp (red), where alcohol sales are allowed every day but Sunday, and totally wet (green) where sales in some jurisdictions include Sunday off-premise sales. The dry counties are now dotted with “private clubs,” a legal artifice created to let restaurants serve drinks in many places.

Costco, which will open its warehouse store on Chenal Parkway in western Little Rock July 21, must go before the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board June 16 for a permit for its planned adjacent liquor store because Republican Sen. Kim Hammer, whose district includes the area, objected to the issuance of a permit by ABC Director Doralee Chandler.

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Hammer, a Missionary Baptist preacher, objected on the ground the area has enough liquor stores. Costco proposes to transfer an existing permit from a business once on Stagecoach Road.

Costco is already permitted to sell beer and wine in its main store. It and other grocery stores are prohibited from selling spirits. But, chain grocery stores in Arkansas are allowed to own one full-service liquor store in the state, so long as it is separate from the main store, a model Sam’s Club pioneered in Fayetteville.

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In reporting this hurdle for Costco liquor sales, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today noted support for Costco from a pair of occasional political adversaries, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and City Director Lance Hines (who represents that part of the city). Both touted the benefits of competition. Others, such as the best retail alcohol outlet in Little Rock, Colonial Wine and Spirits on West Markham, fear it could be damaging to them.

Said Scott:

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I believe competition makes markets stronger and that the mayor’s job is to make Little Rock the strongest most desirable market in the region. If government picks winners and losers by moving to protect some businesses from competition, we will not improve or grow to reach our potential.

Scott is right, much as I’d hate to see adverse effects for Colonial, though it’s unlikely to change my preference for it.

But … the city of Little Rock already picks winners and losers in the booze business — in favor of retail liquor stores — by refusing to take advantage of state law that allows city boards to refer to voters the question of the off-premise sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday. Liquor stores oppose adding another day to their work week, thinking the costs would outweigh the benefit to the advantage of grocery stores now able to sell beer and wine and already open on Sunday.

I’d predict an easy election win for the prospect of being able to legally buy a six-pack of Old Milwaukee on Sunday. Off-premise sales are already allowed for microbreweries, speaking of protective business practices.

The mayor aims to make Little Rock a progressive city with all the amenities the up-and-coming professional class desires. It happens he’s modeled his administration in many ways after the efforts of the mayor in Birmingham, Ala. For the record, Birmingham allows alcohol sales beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday.

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Wide-open alcohol sales are not the rule in all major cities in the region, but beer and wine sales are typically allowed in big cities in Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It’s a small thing, perhaps, but visitors to Little Rock are regularly surprised by this lingering Blue Law. Sunday off-premise sales have been approved in parts of at least seven Arkansas counties.

Why not Little Rock?

If the city board won’t put it on the ballot, voters can do it by a petition drive. One was being considered in 2020. It didn’t happen, but it’s just as well because the Arkansas Supreme Court invalidated paid canvassing efforts last year because of a screwed-up state law designed to make paid canvassing difficult. The recent legislature just made such efforts even harder, so hard the law is being challenged as unconstitutional in federal court.

A City Board vote would be an easy way around petitioning difficulties.

To quote the mayor:

If government picks winners and losers by moving to protect some businesses from competition, we will not improve or grow to reach our potential.