Two legislators from Guilford County are prime movers in a proposal to privatize alcohol sales in North Carolina and liquidate the state’s network of locally owned ABC stores.
State Reps. Jon Hardister, R-Whitsett, and Pricey Harrison, D-Greensboro, are among the four primary sponsors of a bill that would allow supermarkets or other licensed retailers to sell hard alcohol and other forms of what the law calls “spiritous liquor.”
Hardister said his interest in changing the law that currently limits such sales to government-owned, operated and regulated liquor stores dates back years and stems from his belief in “free market” economics.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to own and operate ABC stores,” Hardister said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me from a philosophical perspective.”
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control organization would still serve as a watchdog to make sure the private licensees toe the line in such areas as thoroughly checking IDs to discourage underage drinking, he said.
“When the private sector takes over, you can control a licensing system just as much, if not more” than an all-government operation, Hardister said.
Harrison said she signed onto the legislation, House Bill 971, based on her interest in reforming an antiquated framework that has put unrealistic restrictions on craft distillers and other entrepreneurs.
North Carolina is among a dwindling number of states that restrict the sale of bottled liquor to government-owned and operated outlets.
“Some of them seem nonsensical,” Harrison said of the current statutes controlling alcohol sales. “I’m not sure the state should be in the business of selling alcohol.”
At the local level, the potential change drew a wary response from several Greensboro officials.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said the current system that nets municipal government about $4 million per year seems to be working well.
“When you look at our ABC stores they are situated evenly throughout the community,” Vaughan said. “They are in clean shopping centers, they are well-lit, and they are professionally run.”
Vaughan said she can’t see any compelling reason to change something that seems to be working quite well under the leadership of the local ABC board.
“I have seen these stores in other states and they have a tendency not to be run as well,” she said.
The bill as currently written would start taking effect next year, but Hardister said the date is subject to change. The bill sponsors do not expect passage this session and would push back the start date as needed to accommodate change, perhaps 2023 or 2024, if necessary, he said.
They want to start a conversation about both the pluses and challenges of making such a change, Hardister said, then put together a “hold harmless” format that would leave no community or group disadvantaged by the switch to a licensed system of private retailers.
“It’s not going to happen this year. It’s in the realm of possibility that it could happen next year,” he said of the General Assembly in Raleigh enacting the proposed changes.
Currently, the North Carolina system operates under the supervision of local boards that own and run a total of 500 stores. The stores are then policed by local officials, the state ABC Commission and by the Alcohol Law Enforcement arm of the State Bureau of Investigation.
Guilford County has three separate ABC boards: Greensboro, and smaller systems in High Point and Gibsonville.
The Greensboro system is significantly larger than its local counterparts, with 16 stores throughout the city and in Summerfield; dozens of employees; and an administrative hierarchy that includes CEO Vickee’ Armstrong, a chief of finance, deputy finance officer, a director of operations and a manager of human resources.
State Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, has been the General Assembly’s point man in the effort to overhaul the state’s 80-year-old system for distributing and selling distilled spirits, which he described as “outdated and inefficient” in a recent news release.
As HB 971’s chief sponsor, McGrady said the bill would increase revenue flowing to both state and local governments. In addition to Hardister and Harrison, the other sponsor is state Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincolnton.
With its 170 ABC boards scattered across 100 counties, North Carolina is the only state in the nation where local government boards have total control over retail liquor sales to both consumers and businesses, McGrady noted.
“I think our citizens and businesses are more than ready to be treated like we live in the 21st century,” McGrady said.
The proposal has attracted strong support from the N.C. Retail Merchants Association and the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
But at a recent legislative committee hearing in Raleigh, the bill drew fire from several critics led by state Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Asheboro, who said the proposal would end up “hurting the people of North Carolina” in such ways as triggering increased alcoholism and drunken driving deaths.
Harrison said she also has heard “pushback” from other conservatives who object to any perceived loosening of restraints on alcohol sales, sometimes on religious grounds.
But Andy Ellen, the president and general counsel of the merchants association, said the state’s ability to regulate sales and police the manner in which alcohol is dispensed would only gain ground if licensing and regulation were government’s sole focus.
He said that the state’s hodgepodge of efficient, mediocre and poorly run ABC systems is costing North Carolina tons of potential revenue at the same time it deprives many consumers of quality service and access to a full range of desirable alcoholic beverages.
“Is the bartender at your local Applebee’s any more responsible than a person who is working in a retail store to sell you the very same product?” Ellen asked rhetorically. “With 170 ABC boards, some counties have 10, some have one and some have none.
“Some are much more effective than others. Some are losing money, even as a monopoly.”
Vaughan said she believes the Greensboro ABC system is among the better run. She noted that the City Council recently passed a resolution endorsing the ABC system.
Like the mayor, Councilman Justin Outling said he has yet to see a compelling reason for changing Greensboro’s current arrangement.
“There may be good justification, but I haven’t seen that case being made,” Outling said.
He also echoed Vaughan’s support for the way that Greensboro’s local control has resulted in the “burden and benefits” that ABC stores bring to their host neighborhoods dispersed equitably throughout the community.
The Greensboro ABC Board has five members, led by Greensboro businessman Jim Galyon who serves as the chairman. he City Council appoints the board members to staggered, three-year terms.
One thing that’s certainly in the cards for Greensboro if and when change does come — it will be a massive task to make the transition.
Galyon said the local operation has a significant investment in real estate that includes the stores and other property.
“It’s well into eight figures,” he said.
The local board’s legal counsel, Mike Fox, said that if the system were phased out, the local organization would have to sell assets ranging from the buildings it owns to delivery trucks, office equipment and inventory of distilled spirits.
“I think the place to start thinking about this is, these local ABCs are just like businesses,” said Fox, a Greensboro lawyer.
Employees would lose their jobs, so their retirement benefits under the local government employees’ program would be a consideration. The board would have to “negotiate paying its way out” of the property it leases.
“It would be quite onerous,” Fox said of such a complex closure process.
Hardister said that as complicated as the statewide version of such a transition would be, legislators are not facing any deadline and have plenty of time to build in protections so that all stakeholders — from city governments to individual employees — emerge in at least as good a situation as they have now.
Public sector jobs would be lost in the process, but they likely would be supplanted by many more new positions in the private sector, he said.
“I’ve asked our staff to take a look at how this would impact Guilford County as the bill is currently proposed,” Hardister said. “Bear in mind, we’re at the beginning of a process. ... We don’t want to rush it. We know it’s a big change.”
GREENSBORO — The new neighbors have barely settled in, yet they’re planning to throw a weeklong bash.
They’re billing it as “The Triad’s Party of the Year,” and they’re inviting everybody. Heck, they’ve taken out ads for it in the newspaper, on TV and on billboards.
They expect thousands upon thousands of people to show up, to trample the pristine grass, to eat, drink and be merry.
And yet they’re the kind of neighbors most folks around Sedgefield Country Club welcome with open arms.
Without fanfare, the Wyndham Championship quietly bought some real estate — two houses and a vacant lot — this year, each property near or adjacent to key spots on Sedgefield’s stately Donald Ross-designed golf course.
All three will be used extensively at this week’s Wyndham, the city’s 80th PGA Tour event and the final tournament in golf’s regular season on the Tour’s revamped schedule.
Wyndham Championship officials did not disclose terms of the deals.
But public records searches reveal that the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation, which runs the Wyndham, paid more than $1.75 million for the three:
Why would a nonprofit organization be in the market for houses? The short answer is it’s an investment in the golf tournament’s long-term future.
Of all the houses that border Sedgefield Country Club’s golf course, the two that the Wyndham bought are the most valuable to the golf tournament.
“It really is all about the land,” tournament director Mark Brazil says. “Both of them. They are the two closest houses to Sedgefield, for the most part. They’re both new hospitality venues for us, but, really, these two are for the future.”
For Brazil, the single biggest challenge as the Wyndham has grown in stature is Sedgefield’s small footprint. Sedgefield’s cozy, old-school charm can also be a weakness. There simply isn’t very much open land around the course to use for the money-making hospitality suites and skyboxes that fund the golf tournament’s bottom line.
So when land became available, the Wyndham invested.
“What theses houses do, more than anything, is let us control our own destiny on some things,” Brazil says. “Space out here is very limited and very precious. For us to have these houses, they solve some problems immediately for us.
“They give us storage space we’ve desperately needed. We can have some parties in them that maybe we’ve held in other places before. We can make some more special hospitality areas for some of our top sponsors. ... It allows our staff to stay in these two properties leading up to and through the tournament, and that’s very helpful. And down the road, maybe there’s a chance for us to move our (year-round) offices to the big house.”
Brazil and his staff are still figuring out the long-term possibilities.
But the immediate benefits are obvious.
Renovation work on the bigger house includes all new windows, an outdoor garden patio and a huge new deck. The outdoor spaces both have close, tee-to-green views of Sedgefield’s 10th hole.
That’s a pivotal spot. It’s where Patrick Reed hit the impossible 7-iron from under a tree to beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff at the 2013 Wyndham. It’s where Tiger Woods chipped in for a birdie to start his first-round 64 in 2015.
The property’s lower lawn is big enough for a new hospitality tent.
“We’re excited about this, especially the new deck,” Brazil says. “It’s a big deck, a lot of space for hospitality. We’ll put Sunbrella’s stuff all over it. There’s nothing in front of it, so you’ve got a great view of the whole 10th hole. It’s turned out well.
“And inside, it’ll be a Wyndham house. The downstairs is pretty open, and we’ve got a big portrait of Sam Snead to hang (in the great room). We’ve got action shots from the tournament for the walls. We’ll have some functions in here (on the first floor) throughout the week, starting with a dinner party for Annika (Sorenstam) to welcome her on Monday. It’s a nice place for some of our top sponsors.”
The house next door to the 18th green could end up paying for itself in the not-so-distant future.
The land itself is that valuable to the golf tournament.
“We’ve taken down 20 to 25 trees and made room to grow on the 18th hole,” Brazil says. “And let’s face it: The 18th hole is our centerpiece. It’s our biggest money-making hole on the golf course. Now we’re going to be able to double the size (of hospitality areas) around our centerpiece. We go from 12 luxury skyboxes to 24 boxes. We’re calling that ‘Club 18,’ and that’s been big for sales. It doubles the revenue on that hole. It allows us to breathe and expand.”
But the land wasn’t clear-cut. A stand of three mature trees was left intact at the corner of the property, and a huge tree next to the cart path remains, although a low limb that jutted out over the edge of the green was removed.
Even so, opening up the land made room for an extra lucrative mobile corporate suite.
“By buying that house, we were able to add another luxury suite on the back of 18,” Brazil says. “We had to stop before, to stay off that land. Well, now we can expand. We’ve got several groups from Raleigh together, friends of ours, and they’ve come in and bought that (luxury suite). Look, we’ve got to grow this event, and Raleigh and the Triangle makes the most sense. We’re doing a lot of things with the megasite corridor and the education corridor, all the way to ECU.”
What’s the new space worth?
“Off the top of my head, it’s probably $100,000 (revenue) a year for us,” Brazil says. “… Adding another luxury suite on the back of 18, well, I never thought we’d be able to do that.”
Maybe the biggest question about the purchases is this: What do you do with two big, renovated homes for the 51 weeks every year when the Wyndham Championship isn’t in town?
There are a number of options, Brazil says.
Rentals for High Point Furniture Market. Dorm space for the AJGA Wyndham Invitational. Rentals for events or outings at Sedgefield.
But perhaps the best option would be moving the tournament’s year-round offices to the big house at 5400 Dorchester.
“We would like to do that, yes,” Brazil says. “It would be ideal for our offices. But we must make sure we go through the right steps and processes. Everybody I’ve talked to around here has been like, ‘Yeah, that would be great and it makes all the sense in the world.’ We would take a wing on the top floor and make offices.”
That’s feasible. There is no homeowners association to contend with.
Jaree Todd, a Realtor with Yost and Little who has several listings in the neighborhood, explains.
“The homes right around the golf course, they’re in the oldest part of Sedgefield and there is no HOA or restricted covenant,” Todd says. “Some of those were built in the 1920s and go back to Sedgefield’s beginnings.”
As you move out from the center, the neighborhoods take on Roman numerals all the way up to Sedgefield XII.
“Most of the numbered neighborhoods do have restricted covenants,” Todd says, “but Sedgefield proper does not.”
Both houses are zoned RS-20 residential, but the case could be made that the Wyndham’s offices benefit the neighborhood.
“Hypothetically, it’s possible,” says Oliver Bass, a Planner II with the Guilford County Planning & Development Department, “as long as the activities there are associated with benefits of the residents. It’s sort of like a common area or clubhouse in a development. But depending on the lot, it could be trickier.”
As in, it could require submitting a site plan and going through rezoning and a public hearing. If no rezoning is required, the plan would need to go through an administrative review through the county, Bass says, but would not require a public hearing.
“It just depends on what they’re proposing and what’s on the site,” Bass says.
Whatever happens down the road, the party is on again for this year.
And Todd, the Realtor, says the old neighborhood has welcomed the new homeowners.
“Oh, they love what’s going on around the golf course,” Todd says. “The bottom line is, it helps with home prices for everyone. Most of the people around there are Sedgefield members, and they’re thrilled with what the Wyndham is doing. Both of those homes are right there in high-profile spots, and the Wyndham has made significant improvements. They’ve been good neighbors.”
15th year: Bookmarks offers a range of genres in the annual Winston-Salem festival that kicks off Sept. 5. Page A9