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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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11/29/2012 7:30:00 AM
City may allow gas stations to sell alcohol

Kyle Rogers

Rhinelander officials are considering putting an end to the ongoing prohibition on alcohol sales at gas stations within the city limits.

Although the issue has come up before, and failed to gain traction, this time may be different. When the question of dropping the prohibition was brought up during a meeting of the city's Protection of Persons and Property (PPP) Committee Monday night, city officials appeared more amenable to a possible change.

The committee approved a motion recommending removal of the city ordinance prohibiting gas stations from obtaining a liquor license. The motion also called for an end to the city's self-imposed quota on beer licenses, which is currently at six.

Alderman and committee member Tom Kelly was the only one who didn't support the motion. Alex Young, Tom Gleason, Joe Salzer and Steve Sauer all voted "yes." The City Council will consider the issue during its Dec. 10 meeting.

Kwik Trip is considering locating two or three stores in Rhinelander and wants to be able to include a beer cooler area that is typical of the Kwik Trip brand, City Administrator Blaine Oborn explained to the committee. He also noted that, based on his research, Rhinelander is one of only two municipalities in the state that prohibits liquor sales at gas stations.

Three years ago, PPP Committee members shot down a proposal to repeal the ordinance. Now it could happen upon approval from the City Council next month.

"I think there's a logical reason for the rule, but we're one of two (municipalities) in the state (that have this prohibition) and I don't think other communities have problems," Young said.

Kelly's dissenting vote stemmed from worries about what a change could mean for local businesses that currently carry liquor licenses. Gas stations joining the alcohol sales ranks would cut into the business of already established locations, he said.

"My concern is they're barely keeping their heads above water and we're slicing the pie thinner," Kelly said.

Representatives of the Oneida County Tavern League were also at Monday night's meeting to voice similar concerns.

State Representative-elect Rob Swearingen, owner of the Al-Gen Dinner Club and president of the state tavern league, said the league's general position is to oppose the expansion of liquor licenses.

"Gas stations should stick to selling gas, liquor stores should stick to selling liquor," Swearingen said. "We just don't need more outlets."

Businesses such as Walmart and Trig's offer much more than just alcohol, so the city's liquor stores would be most affected by a more saturated alcohol sales market, Swearingen said.

"It's certainly going to put the squeeze on the two existing (standalone) liquor stores, Stein's and House of Spirits," he said. "Rhinelander has been unique in not allowing gas stations to sell liquor. I always thought it was a good decision. I think Kwik Trip would do just fine without a beer license."

Young said Monday he understands those concerns, but is OK moving forward with removing the prohibition, especially since most municipalities in the state already allow gas station alcohol sales.

"Realistically, we're in a gigantic minority," Young said. "I don't think it's a big deal. I don't think it's the city's place to use (the prohibition) to create an artificial monopoly. It's not our job to keep liquor stores in or out of business. I think the market dictates that."

If the prohibition isn't repealed, Oborn said there is nothing stopping Kwik Trip from deciding to locate outside the city limits where gas station alcohol sales are allowed.

"That's the dilemma," he said about the concern over a more saturated alcohol sales market. "We want everybody to succeed."

Out of all the gas stations in the city, allowing alcohol sales could be a boon to one in particular because of a single event: Hodag Country Fest.

A BP gas station sits on the corner of Stevens Street and County Highway W, a gateway intersection connecting the city to the roads that lead to the Country Fest grounds.

Roughly 1,400 customers walk through the door daily at the gas station, said Aries Tatrow, the station's manager. During Country Fest week that number is in the neighborhood of 8,000. And about three-quarters of those customers are looking for beer and liquor, Tatrow said.

Tatrow said removal of the prohibition would benefit all of the city's gas stations.

"There are a tremendous amount of loyal customers," he said.

Tatrow said customers want the opportunity to be able to stop quickly at their local convenience store, buy a six-pack, and go home without having to make the trek somewhere else (i.e. Walmart).

"Just having the option open - that we could or not - that's the benefit," Tatrow said, adding that pursuing a liquor license would be up to the station's owner Jerry Remington if the prohibition is indeed repealed.

Tatrow said even if the station doesn't sell alcohol on a regular basis, a repeal could open up the opportunity for an area wholesaler to do alcohol sales in the parking lot during Country Fest week - something that has been previously discussed but hasn't happened because the station couldn't get city approval.

It was the station's former owner, Mitch Miles, who last brought this issue to the attention of city officials three years ago. At that time, repeal of the prohibition was denied and the same concern about taking business away from the city's already established liquor stores was brought up. Also of concern was a potential increase in underage drinking.

Salzer said Monday that again is his primary concern. While he voted "yes" to move the issue forward, he said he wants more information from Kwik Trip representatives at the December City Council meeting showing that they have a good record when it comes to underage alcohol and tobacco sales.

Police Chief Mike Steffes noted gas stations selling alcohol has not been an issue for other communities he has worked in and he didn't see a law enforcement issue arising in Rhinelander if officials decided to allow it.

Oborn said Kwik Trip, and others, would still have to abide by other alcohol sales rules if the prohibition is removed.

"It's hard to see (which gas stations) would and wouldn't come in (with applications for a liquor license)," Oborn said.

Alcohol sales still couldn't occur beyond 9 p.m. and alcohol would have to be in a separate enclosed area that could be locked up during those closing hours. Oborn said Kwik Trip's preliminary building plans appear to meet the requirements. For other city gas stations, creating an enclosed area for alcohol may be more feasible for some than others, he said.

Kyle Rogers may be reached at

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Article comment by: Craig Strid

I'ts just about convenience. It's for the guy hauling his fishing rig headed home or out to the cabin or the Fester in a big camper rig. They don't have to make another trip to go into an unfamiliar congested parking area with a rig to get a six-pack. It's for the northbound tourist who has been driving for six hours who is heading for the cabin as soon as he gases up. The regulars will shop for the best bang for their buck or sales.

Food for thought

Craig Strid

Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Article comment by: Kurtis Klunder

Wow, Rhinelander might take a step into the 21st century? About time. Agree with the comment above about the "good old boys." They always fear competition.

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012
Article comment by: Jerry Freeze

To Robert:
You may want to check your figures as to the majority of the population being under 70. As for Kwik Trip, love the stores. The good old boys are just afraid of a little competition.

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Article comment by: Robert Babl

Welcome to the 21st century Rhinelander. Next you might figure out that the majority of the population is younger than 70 and does not go to bed at 7 p.m. after the news. Happy to see some movement from the 1950s.

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Article comment by: Jon Sommer

As an Assemblyman, I don't really see how his new position within the state would conflict with his Tavern League position in this specific case.

According to the article, this is a wholly municipal issue, dealing only with the City of Rhinelander. It really doesn't matter what the Assembly-person thinks, as this decision lies firmly in the hands of the municipal government. It does make sense, however, that they would seek the opinion of the local Tavern League members.

If this was a statewide issue, then I'd agree that he'd have to weigh the potential conflicts, as I'm sure he would.

That said, I'm all for new businesses, and have always enjoyed how well-run the typical Kwik Trip is.

Plus, it's handy to be able to pick up grocery items and beer at a gas station when you don't want to make a full-fledged trip to the store.

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Article comment by: Corinne Hoffmann

Kwik Trip would be a terrific asset to the businesses in the Rhinelander area. I really do hope that the City Council passes the resolution and makes the right step into the 21st century.

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Article comment by: Joy Neeley

I really hope Swearingen steps down as Tavern League President soon - it appears that there is a conflict of interest there. He is supposed to represent all of his constituents, not just the bar owners.

Having Kwik Trip means more jobs - I wish they would come to my community! I grew up with two in my town, it was great. Low cost bananas, cheap milk - yum!

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