While the Columbia Wegmans opened over the weekend, the future of a liquor store proposed to lease space on its second floor is still uncertain.
The county Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board held a second hearing Thursday, June 14, on a liquor license for the proposed store but decided to continue the proceedings so the principal owner can appear and answer questions. A third hearing date has not been set.
The split ownership of the store has been a point of contention in the case. The person who applied for the license is attorney Michael Smith, of Ellicott City, who has a 10 percent stake in the store. The other 90 percent belongs to IAD LLC, a Delaware-registered company owned by Christopher O'Donnell of New York, husband of Wegmans' President Colleen Wegman.
Opponents have questioned whether the liquor store, which would be leasing space from Wegmans, is legal under state law, which prohibits supermarkets and chain stores from carrying alcohol.
"This isn't about limiting competition," said Gerard Boarman, part owner of North Ridge Wine and Spirits in Ellicott City. "This about allowing a grocery store, chain store, box store, whatever you want to call it to have a liquor license.
"If this store was wholly owned by David Smith, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight," Boarman added. "He doesn't have any interest in this store. He's just a figurehead."
The liquor store would be in the same building as the Wegmans, on the second floor. All of Wegmans grocery operations will be conducted on the first floor; the second floor will have seating for persons purchasing food from its market cafe on the first floor.
Liquor store patrons would enter the building from doors connected to the second level of the parking garage. The doors open into a lobby area, from which you can enter the liquor store, Wegmans cafe seating area or go downstairs to the grocery store. There is no door that would open directly from the parking garage to the liquor store.
Interviewed after the hearing, Smith said he was not upset about the delay.
"I want to make sure the process is done properly," he said.
Once the board has all the information it needs, Smith said, he is "confident the license will be granted."
Smith said O'Donnell will not have a role in the day-to-day operations of his store.
"His role basically is as a banker," Smith said. "He's a venture capitalist."
Smith said O'Donnell owns "two very successful liquor stores" in New York and New Jersey, both of which are located adjacent to a Wegmans, in which he helped lay out the overall strategy and vision for the stores.
"That's what he's going to do here," Smith said.
The first hearing on the license request, held May 1, lasted for 4 1/2 hours. Most of the people who testified at both hearings were opposed to the store.
The majority of the opposition was mounted by owners of existing liquor stores in Howard and other counties. The two opposition attorneys in the case are representing The Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop in Columbia, Glenwood Wine & Spirits and The Perfect Pour in Elkridge, but other liquor store owners testified.
At the May 1 hearing, liquor store owners argued that the 9,800-square-foot liquor store, larger than others in the area, would hurt their business.
At the June 14 hearing, they focused more on the ownership issue.
"You see this chair I'm sitting on?" Richard Futrovsky, owner of Camelot Discount Liquors in Laurel (in Prince George's County) said. "If I stand on it and reach for something it doesn't make it a ladder. And if I put a tablecloth on it, it doesn't make it a table. It's still a chair. No matter how Wegmans tries to disguise the Wegmans liquor store as not being Wegmans, it's still Wegmans. Nobody in the country would believe otherwise."
Futrovsky also raised the question of why Wegmans would go to all the trouble of building space for a liquor store without a license.
"If I went out and bought four new tires and didn't have a car, it wouldn't be too smart, would it?" he said.
Opponents also raised concerns about children being exposed to the liquor store, since it's located in the Wegmans.