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Wednesday, 24 June 2009 15:56

Casino to buy liquor in bulk, but from whom?

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Cherokee isn’t the only one that potentially stands to make money off the sale of alcohol to patrons at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Swain or Jackson counties could see a mini-windfall of their own if Harrah’s purchases vast quantities of liquor from the ABC stores in either Bryson City or Sylva.

Restaurants and bars that serve liquor must buy their booze from the nearest or most convenient ABC store — part of the tightly regulated nature of liquor that ensures collection of a hefty excise tax tacked on to each bottle.

While the state lays claim to the excise tax revenue, any profit turned by an ABC store remains with local coffers, generally split between the county and town where the store is located. More booze being purchased, especially the bulk quantities that gamblers at Harrah’s are bound to consume, means more profit for whichever store lands their business.

Before Sylva or Bryson City get too excited about the prospect, however, typical state laws governing liquor purchases may not apply to establishments in Cherokee, which consider itself a sovereign nation.

“They’re different,” said Laurie Lee, the auditor for the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “We don’t know at this point how it is going to work. It is a unique situation.”

Instead of buying liquor from the existing ABC stores in either Bryson or Sylva, Cherokee might look for a way to keep any profits of the bulk liquor purchases for themselves. That would essentially mean setting up its own ABC store.

State law requires voters in an area to approve the opening of an ABC store. Such a vote would be tough to pass in Cherokee where alcohol is a controversial issue, both for cultural, social and religious reasons.

While Cherokee voters approved a measure earlier this month to allow drink sales at the casino, the rest of the Cherokee reservation will remain dry. The pledge to limit drink sales to casino premises assuaged many who otherwise would have voted “no” — making it unlikely a vote on setting up an ABC store would curry favor from the majority.

But once again, it is possible an exception could be made for Cherokee. If Cherokee wanted to set up its own ABC store with the sole purpose of selling liquor to Harrah’s — rather than to the public — the state may allow such an arrangement without requiring the regular referendum.

Yet another option is for Cherokee to buy its liquor directly from the state warehouse, bypassing the Sylva and Bryson ABC stores. The state might like that idea, since it would stand to make the profits from the bulk orders.

“It is all a gray area right now,” Lee said. “Whether they will purchase directly through our warehouse or go through a local ABC board or whether they could set up their own store, we are researching all those issues. Those are all things that will have to be worked out.”

The first step is for Cherokee to decide on its preferred arrangement and then ask the state if it’s OK.

Norma Moss, the director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, said the tribe hasn’t worked through those details yet.

“The distribution process still needs to be decided,” Moss said.

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