Liquor 4 Less owner Prentice Panton has major problems with the restrictions on how package stores are allowed to operate in Grand Cayman. And he’s not the only one: Representatives from the biggest players in the territory’s alcohol industry also question the rules regarding when individual liquor stores can open and close.
In mid-August, Mr. Panton opened a package store in Savannah Plaza, across the street from Countryside Shopping Village. He said he was surprised – and, in a way, disappointed – by the lack of public outcry over the Liquor Licensing Board allowing him to operate the store until 10pm.
That’s three hours later than the nearby Jacques Scott Wine & Spirits store is permitted to be open. In 2007, members of the local Savannah/Newlands community and Church of God created a firestorm of controversy over the board’s decision to let Jacques Scott move its soon-to-be-demolished Red Bay store to Savannah – which protesters insisted should be preserved as a “dry” community.
No similar uproar occurred in regard to Mr. Panton’s application, which was approved in mid-June.
Mr. Panton had been hoping for greater media attention and the opportunity to state publicly that he did not want to move to Savannah at all. Rather, he said he was driven to the district of Bodden Town after seven years of unsuccessfully applying for extended hours in George Town.
Mr. Panton said board chairman Mitchell Welds had told him in a private meeting that the board was tired of hearing his repeated requests for extended hours in George Town, but would be willing to consider his request for extended hours outside of George Town, ergo the Savannah store.
“I went to Savannah because it’s considered Bodden Town,” Mr. Panton said, calling the distinction based on electoral district lines ‘stupid’.
Predictably, now Jacques Scott is applying to the board for permission to extend its Countryside store’s hours to 10pm as well. The application is on the agenda for the board’s annual meeting 20 September at the Government Administration Building.
“It’s a competitive environment, and that area has changed,” Jacques Scott Managing Director Peter Dutton said. “I don’t think it would be fair if we couldn’t have the same hours.”
Cayman Distributors Group Financial Director Ben Cullen said different operating hours within districts are confusing to customers as well as licence holders. The group’s companies include BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s.
“I’d like to try get some clarity and consistency from the board, whether it’s by district or across the whole Island. That would be beneficial to everyone, companies and the public,” he said.
The board’s position is that liquor stores outside of George Town can apply for later hours, Mr. Welds said.
“It has been the policy of the board for some time to consider later hours for liquor stores in the outer districts,” he said.
‘Level playing field’
Mr. Panton believes all package stores everywhere should have the same standard hours, whether that means closing at 7pm, 10pm or otherwise. Likewise, each licensed establishment (i.e. hotels, restaurants, retail, etc.) should have the same standard hours according to the category of its licence, he said.
“It’s wrong for the Liquor Licensing Board to tell one liquor store it can open at 8am, when some gotta open at 9, some gotta open at 10, some gotta close at 7pm, some gotta close at 10,” he said. “I want one level playing field where everyone gets the same hours, and it’s up to the individual stores to choose what hours they want to open within that time.”
He added that he intends to keep applying for later hours for his two George Town locations.
At the moment, liquor stores must open and must close according to the conditions of their licences. So even if Mr. Panton’s new Savannah store is seeing little-to-no business from 7 to 10pm, the store cannot close until 10pm.
The historical justification for differing hours among districts was to allow people from outlying areas to shop for alcohol at their local stores after returning from their evening commutes from George Town, which, before the construction of the new highways, could take a significant amount of time.
“The laws are antiquated and need to be changed. It’s pure protectionism on the part of the board,” Mr. Panton said, saying West Bay and Bodden Town stores are profiting at the expense of George Town stores.
Mr. Dutton said he doesn’t have strong feelings about distinctions between districts, but the rules should be the same within each district. However, he agreed that stores should have the freedom to close earlier than the times specified by their licences.
Mr. Welds said that’s beyond the board’s control, citing the section of the Liquor Licensing Law that states, “Every licensee shall […] keep the licensed premises open […] during the specified hours”.
When asked if that particular section of the law should be changed, Tortuga Rum Company President Robert Hamaty said, “Of course,” adding that his West Bay store doesn’t see a heavy rush between the hours of 7 to 10pm.
While Mr. Hamaty doesn’t mind if, for example, the board declares that all liquor stores are now eligible to stay open until 10pm, he believes the public should retain its right to object to individual applications. He said, “I don’t have a problem if the board wants to do that, but everyone still has to advertise, and the general public has the right to object.”
Mr. Panton said the continuing moratorium on issuing new liquor licences has created a “huge black market” where people can sell their liquor licences for upward of $25,000 to $100,000.
Mr. Dutton said that toward the end of the last government administration, a lot of work went into reviewing the Liquor Licensing Law, primarily from a compliance perspective, and the moratorium was one of the topics considered.
He said it was “a shame” that review seems to have fallen by the wayside, and said maybe it’s time to do another review of the subject, starting from the point of the moratorium.
“I think it’s outlived its purpose, and it’s time for a review, to have another look at it,” Mr. Dutton said.
“The moratorium is not correct,” Mr. Hamaty said, describing the moratorium as “political” in nature and handed down from government.
Mr. Hamaty said the review referenced by Mr. Dutton resulted in “a good proposal” that “died an unnatural death”.
Mr. Cullen said the way liquor licences are controlled leads to difficult financial decisions, beginning with the inability to enter the market without acquiring a licence from somebody else. “There’s quite a value to those liquor licences,” he said, noting his company had obtained its licences as it acquired existing companies, not from individuals speculating on dormant licences.
“The moratorium has created a secondary market where licences have become a commodity offered for exorbitant amounts of money,” Mr. Welds said.
However, he said the board has no jurisdiction over lifting the moratorium. “Cabinet can lift it by way of order any time the need arises,” he said.
Mr. Welds said the board does have the ability to consider new liquor licence requests, but only for hotels and vessels.
Since he’s been chairman of the board, there have been two select committees appointed by the Ministry of Tourism to make recommendations in relation to the 2000 liquor law, in 2002 and 2008, Mr. Welds said. Neither of the resulting reports were ever debated in the Legislative Assembly, and therefore none of the recommended changes were implemented.
“Both of the laws, the Liquor Licensing Law and the Music and Dancing Law, need to be revised,” Mr. Welds said.