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Changes to Delaware liquor laws give some reason to raise a glass

There’s been a flurry of good news lately for Delawareans who like to enjoy alcoholic beverages.

Earlier this month, town leaders in Milton gave the go ahead to an expansion of the Dogfish Head Brewery. On January 5, a bill was introduced to create a special type of liquor license for the Queen Theater in downtown Wilmington, much like the special licenses created by the General Assembly for Dover International Speedway and Frawley Stadium. And the state laws governing beer tasting have become more liberal in recent years; not to mention the long-awaited introduction of Sunday liquor sales.

These developments could make drinking folks think Delaware is turning into a progressive state when it comes to liquor laws.

While things are getting a bit more permissive, the First State is still behind the times when it comes to opening up the booze floodgates. The state has a long way to go before it rivals Nevada, where bars are open 24/7 and public intoxication is legal.

“I don’t see any neo-prohibitionist movement, but I don’t see any pro-liquor movement either,” explained Adam Balick, an attorney who does alcohol beverage licenses throughout Delaware, and was a former Deputy Attorney General for the State of Delaware. “The movement we see is incremental, not fast.”

Recent changes to the liquor landscape, he continued, are about an industry and government trying to respond to changes in the marketplace and the general economic environment.

Indeed, despite opposition to the Dogfish Head expansion in the community, lawmakers gave the thumbs up. After the approval was announced, Councilwoman Marion Jones told the News Journal that: “Milton has to consider the economic changes that have happened all around them. Either change with them or get left behind.” Dogfish Head employs more than 100 people in the town.

H.B. 236 would create a special liquor license for Delaware concert halls like World Cafe Live at the Queen Theater

In Wilmington, the opening of the Queen Theater last year was heralded as an economic boon for a city struggling with high unemployment and a lack of venues to bring suburbanites downtown. Anything that might threaten the concert hall, including the lack of an appropriate liquor license, would be bad news for Wilmington.

That’s why lawmakers want to alter the liquor laws to include a special category. Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington South) introduced H.B. 236, an Act to amend Title 4 of the Delaware Code relating to alcoholic liquors to include a distinction for concert halls like the Queen, which was granted a special temporary liquor license.

An excerpt from the bill:

“Concert Hall” shall mean an indoor facility used to host live entertainment that is owned, leased, under easement, and/or operated by any person and that has a capacity of at least 600 patrons for any single event. In order for a facility to be licensed as a concert hall, the facility shall host a minimum of 250 live music events in any calendar year and shall be open at least five days per week. A facility meeting this definition may license the entire building, including patio, with the concert hall license.

At this time, it’s unclear whether the bill will pass; but other changes to Title 4 have already made it through, including allowing retailers and importers of alcoholic beverages to donate liquor to nonprofits, signed into law last summer. A year earlier, a bill permitting the tasting and sampling of beer, no matter how long it’s been in the marketplace, made it through the legislature.

Not all liquor-focused bills have had such luck.

Rep. John Viola (D-Newark) sponsored H.B. 193 in 2009 to allow the sale of wine and beer in grocery stores, but the bill died. Delaware is only one of about five states that prohibit such sales, he noted. “The grocery stores of today aren’t the grocery stores of yesteryear,” he explained. “Most now have a florist, a bakery, a pharmacy.”

Another bill that’s been difficult to pass is one permitting the interstate sale of wine for consumers who want to buy direct from producers in other states. The bill, first introduced by Rep. Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne), in the last session only to see it fail, was introduced by Hudson last April and is stuck in committee.

In both cases, much of the opposition came from the business community; small liquor stores in particular who feared such changes would eat into their sales.

It’s not unexpected for Delaware to be behind the times when it comes to opening up restrictions on alcohol.

“Delaware has never been the most liberal,” said David Hanson, author of Alcohol: Problems and Solutions blog, and the professor emeritus of sociology of the State University of New York at Potsdam.

In a blog post about the First State, he wrote:

The temperance movement has a long tradition in Delaware. Well before National Prohibition was established in 1920, much of Delaware had already become dry. By referendum, Kent and Sussex counties had adopted their own prohibition as early as 1907. New Castle followed, and only the city of Wilmington was still wet when Prohibition was imposed across the country.

Times have changed.

Hanson stressed that Delaware, as with many other states that had tough liquor laws, has been forced to make revisions in the last decade. “In general, blue laws and dry counties are becoming more liberal,” he explained, because of societal changes and the ubiquitous nature of alcohol today, including wine and beer at supermarkets.

“But you’ve got cross currents,” he maintained. There’s also a movement by a number of states to make it more difficult to obtain alcohol and that’s come in the shape of higher taxes and also restrictions on where liquor companies can advertise, he said.

Overall, he added, Delaware has come a long way since Prohibition.

Not far enough for some. “I don’t think we’re moving ahead as fast as we should,” Rep. Viola said about liberalizing liquor laws. “The time has come. We have to come into the 21st Century.”