Small businesses rally behind voters’ rejection of alcohol-related measures

Carolyn Joy could barely watch Tuesday night as the results on Colorado’s election webpage changed by the minute.

The owner of Joy Wine and Spirits, a family-run liquor store near Cheesman Park, had conscripted her entire family in a grassroots campaign against three alcohol-related measures on this year’s ballot — all of them funded by large, out-of-state corporations that would make it easier for national chains to grab a foothold in Colorado’s liquor market.

So, in between refreshing the state’s website and texting other small business owners, Joy turned to TikTok videos of funny animals and mountain biking to ease her anxiety.

“I always felt we had a chance,” Joy said.

She was right.

Coloradans, in a series of surprise results Tuesday, overwhelmingly rejected one measure that would have allowed liquor stores the ability to operate unlimited locations. In another, citizens seem to have shot down a vote that would have permitted third-party companies like Instacart to deliver alcohol to your home. And a third vote — allowing wine to be sold at grocery and convenience stores — is trailing in a vote that’s still too close to call.

Polling before the election showed voters overwhelmingly supported both the wine measure (Proposition 125) and the delivery referendum (Proposition 126). And the big businesses supporting their passage — such as the conglomerates behind King Soopers, Safeway and DoorDash — had outspent the local retailers by a 47-to-1 margin.

“This really was a David vs. Goliath effort,” said Chris Fine, executive director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which opposed all three propositions. “Colorado voters saw through some of the convenience pieces and said, ‘convenience at what cost?’”

Owners of independent liquor stores like Joy feared what the measures might do to their bottom lines — if they didn’t run them out of business altogether.

After a 2019 law change allowed grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, most small liquor stores in the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association saw at least a 30% drop in sales, Fine said.

These propositions, taken together, represented an “erosion of small business in general,” Joy said. “They all peck away, chip away at small business.”

With just $680,000 in campaign funding — compared to the more than $30 million pushing for the measures’ passage — the independent liquor stores went grassroots to drum up support.

Joy’s children at the University of Colorado Boulder evangelized the college student bloc. Her nephew diligently worked social media. Joy talked through the issue with customers who walked into her store.

“Colorado really doesn’t want the monopolistic choices of a corporation,” she said.

The coalition of independent liquor stores said it didn’t appreciate the “Yes on 124” campaign ads, which sought to frame the vote as a leveling of the playing field for small businesses.

Proponents of the measure argued changing the law would address inequities that favor big-box retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Target, which can own more licenses than the average liquor store. After Tuesday’s results, the campaign said it hoped the vote would embolden the state legislature to take up the issue.

“We’ve seen it with so many other small mom-and-pop stores going away for big-box stores,” Fine said. “This was a unique and awesome way of saying, ‘not here and not now.’”

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