Hey, what’s going on with the Saskatchewan liquor business these days?
Something odd is happening to the Saskatchewan liquor sales business. When the province opened the retail liquor market to non-government operations, Moose Jaw was awarded another licensed store.
Sobeys won the award and built a store on North Hill in the Civic Centre Plaza development. The understanding among most Moose Jaw residents was this city would once again have two main liquor outlets and the usual off sale outlets.
That was fine for those people desiring a reduction in impaired driving and thus opposed to easier access to booze. Since that award, the number of private liquor outlets has tripled. Sobeys opened. Super Store opened on site and a South Hill bar converted most of its space to a large liquor store. That does not mention expansion by off sale outlets.
All this change has sort of snuck up on Moose Jaw, making liquor easier to get and involving price competition among liquor outlets.
Recently, a provincial media outlet broke another news story on liquor retailing that surprised many residents.
When the province partially privatized the liquor business by awarding licences to 50 private outlets and closing 40 rural stores, even shuttering some quite profitable places, the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority did not allow trade or sale of the new licences.
Two years after those store licences were awarded, the Saskatchewan government will lift that restriction. Liquor licences may be traded or sold as of Oct. 8, as long as the new owner stays within the community attached to the licence award. There will be no moving of the store to another community, at least for now. Until now, a liquor retail permit could only be for government-operated, the new private stores, hotels or taverns. According to rumour, some Alberta liquor chains, eager to expand into a new market, are prepared to pay $800,000 just for a licence to open a booze outlet in this province.
The Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association is up in arms at what it describes as a fundamental change. The worry is that,in some towns owners will sell the lucrative permits, leaving the town without a hotel or with two operators that can’t make a go of it.
Certainly, this policy does no favours for rural Saskatchewan and could introduce cut throat price cutting in urban areas. The whole policy seems calculated to privatize the retail liquor business in Saskatchewan, one way or the other. A government survey showed Saskatchewan voters are opposed to privatizing the retail liquor business, but not by as wide a margin as with other Crown corporations. Wanting to lose the opposition claim it will privatize Crown corporations, the Saskatchewan Party apparently has chosen a back door privatization. By allowing wider private outlets and fierce price competition, the government will make friends among booze consumers as did the buck a beer policy in Ontario. Private outlets and price competition will steal sales from the government liquor stores, eventually driving some to cut staff or close.
In years to come, once government liquor store operations are no longer viable and almost worthless, the government will dump what is left.
Taxpayers will lose in three ways: loss of profits along the way, loss in value of the stores and higher costs to deal with healthcare and drunk driving issues caused by easier, cheaper access to booze.
And we wonder why the public trusts used car sales agents more than politicians.
Ron Walter can be reached at ronjoy@ sasktel.net