— Joe Conti, CEO of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, had never been to Honesdale before Tuesday.
It’s probably fair to say he will forever remember his visit on Tuesday when he met with local leaders concerning the closing of the liquor store on Main Street.
Suffice it to say, he got an earful.
But the bottom line remains: The liquor store is moving to a location in the Route 6 Plaza next to Weis Market in Texas Township, probably by Nov. 1.
The issue arose recently when that announcement was made, much to the chagrin of many in Honesdale. Because of that, Gail Tucker, executive director of the Greater Honesdale Partnership, contacted Sen. Lisa Baker, Rep. Mike Peifer and Rep. Sandra Major requesting Tuesday’s meeting. Both Peifer and Baker were in attendance.
“The consumer is changing what they like in a spirits store,” said Conti.
However, during his remarks, Conti also revealed the deal with the new store in Texas Township actually was approved in January 2011, just a month after the PLCB had assured Honesdale officials the local store would remain on Main Street.
He said the Department of General Services negotiates the real estate deals for the PLCB.
Conti, who coined himself a “hospitality guy” when citing his background, went on to explain the PLCB is developing a “new store look” and this will be the first of its kind in northeastern Pennsylvania.
There will be a center table, a tasting bar and a different look for the shelves, including more variety.
“We are projecting a 10 to 25 percent increase in retail sales at this location,” said Conti.
That’s when the onslaught began.
“We are disappointed because this borough has much more hospitality than Texas Township,” said Jeff Hiller, owner of Trackside Grill and president of the GHP board.
Conti said if there would have been another alternative, it would have been considered.
“But we were never asked,” said Hiller.
“I realize that,” said Conti.
Scott Smith, Honesdale Borough councilman and chairman of the finance committee, asked Conti what the process was in making such a decision.
“There is no process, by law,” said Conti.
He said advertising such a move “is not mandated by law.”
Then, Paul Meagher, owner of Re/Max Wayne, began what amounted to a dressing down of the PLCB.
“The culture of your organization is way off base,” said Meagher, who at times was very animated. “The culture of the PLCB must change from the top to the bottom.”
He said the PLCB did the same kind of move in Hawley and Carbondale and it has backfired.
He also pointed straight to Conti as being part of the problem.
Page 2 of 3 - “The chairman of the board is wrong,” said Meagher. “Somewhere along the line you are going to destroy Main Street, Pennsylvania.”
Meagher said he is the “first to admit” the landlord at the current location “is not the easiest to work with,” but said the PLCB didn’t give anyone in the borough a chance.
“We have buildings here which would have been sufficient,” said Meagher.
Conti said all of the recent governors have instructed PLCB to “run it like a business.”
It was revealed the new store lease will be $58,640 per year as compared to $32,000 for the current store. The square footage will be slightly larger. It was also revealed a five-year lease has been signed for that location with two seven year options.
“The negative impact on Honesdale will be 10 times greater than the positive impact on Texas Township,” said Honesdale Mayor Ed Langendoerfer.
Brian Wilkens of Honesdale National Bank pointed out the state has put money into changing to one-way streets, redeveloping downtown but then is pulling a business out of that same area.
“You guys got to get it together,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. Would a real business make this decision?”
“There was absolutely no communication,” said Langendoerfer.
Local Main Street attorney Mike Lehutsky, who is head of the Wayne County Republican Party, also had a lot to say to Conti.
He pointed out that in the fall of 2010, the state advertised they might move the store and then after a “big outcry,” the PLCB “backed off.”
Then, he said, “off in Harrisburg, while telling us publicly (it wouldn’t move), you made the decision (to move) without telling the public,” said Lehutsky.
“What it smells like is your idea of a fair process is letting it go through” without informing the people, said Lehutsky.
Lehutsky also told Conti he couldn’t find any paperwork related to the Department of General Services soliciting real estate.
The attorney also pointed out the “downtown location law” which he said “should be considered.”
That law encourages state agencies to locate in downtown areas.
Conti was also asked where the GSA advertised but he said he was “not sure.”
One issue which really raised the dander of those in attendance had to do with how the state categorized the changing of locations.
By law, Conti said if a store closes the PLCB has to notify the local Senate and House representatives.
“But this was a relocation,” he said. “If we would have closed the Honesdale store and not relocated,” then they would have been notified.
“But you are closing the Honesdale store,” said Hiller, who also apologized for what happened.
Page 3 of 3 - Tucker pointed out that as far back as 2007, when another issue was raised, “the PLCB was aware of our issues.”
“As executive director of an organization, you have to look at other Main Street locations,” said Meagher. “You took the easy way out.”
Conti said the PLCB has done extensive market studies and the main result is “people want convenience.”
He said people want to be able to go to the grocery store and the liquor store “and not move their car.”
“It means you are throwing the downtowns under the bus for the sake of convenience,” said Lehutsky.
Sen. Baker then intervened, asking how to “move forward” with this situation.
One positive which might be able to come of out it is the possibility of opening a “boutique” store somewhere in the downtown area.
Conti said the state has been developing the idea of a boutique store but have yet to find a suitable location.
“We have been looking for a borough like this but haven’t found one yet,” said Conti.
Conti then promised to come back to Honesdale with the PLCB’s director of real estate to meet with local officials and “see what happens.”
That will be coordinated with the GHP, said Baker, and the meeting will likely take place in the very near future.