Target and Jolly Pumpkin Move Toward Alcohol Sales Approval. But Is Target Currently Violating State Liquor Control Law?

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Thursday, August 29, 2019, 10:40 am
Alice Dreger

Commissioner Jack Cahill at the July 24 meeting of the Planning Commission. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

East Lansing’s Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority have now voted to recommend City Council approve requests from Target and Jolly Pumpkin to sell alcohol at their new Center City locations. All the two businesses need now is City Council’s vote of approval to be in legal compliance.

But is Target in violation of state liquor control laws now, by selling alcohol before it has the local permit to do so?

That question was raised last night by Planning Commissioner and lawyer Jack Cahill, who once worked in the Michigan Attorney General’s office.

Cahill said he felt “great discomfort” at the idea of Target selling alcohol before it had the local permit to do so.

Target started selling beer, wine, and liquor as soon as it opened last month. Before that opening, the Target Corporation had obtained the state’s SDM and SDD liquor licenses, which allow for the sale of beer, wine, and liquor for off-premise use.

But Target did not apply for the required Special Use Permit (SUP) from the City of East Lansing until after it opened.

As ELi reported previously, City staff said that this is acceptable. This approach — allowing alcohol sales while the application to sell alcohol is considered — has been carried out with at least one other store, namely the convenience store at the Marathon gas station at the corner of Hagadorn Road and Grand River Avenue.

On August 1, East Lansing Planning & Zoning Administrator David Haywood told ELi that “technically, yes,” Target is in violation of City law by selling alcohol without approval.

“However,” he explained, “our practice has been that if a business has a state liquor license in good standing and has submitted an SUP application, we stay any enforcement action until final action on the SUP.”

Does Target have a state liquor license in good standing if it’s selling without the local permit? That’s the question that has been raised by Commissioner Cahill.

Last night, Cahill made clear in his comments that he has no problem with Target selling alcohol per se. But he questioned, as he did at the last Planning Commission meeting, why Target isn’t being viewed as in violation of the state liquor control laws by doing so without the approved SUP?

Cahill also asked why the “administration” of the City is allowing this approach of selling alcohol before all required legal permission is granted?

Reading from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s Retailer License & Permit Application, Cahill noted, “The licensee must obtain all other required state and local licenses, permits, and approvals for this business before using this license for the sale of alcoholic liquor on the licensed premises.”

Cahill said that if the City has “made the determination that this is something you have to have, it should be enforced.”

Attorney Mike Brown represented Target at the meeting but left before Cahill raised his specific legal concerns. Reached by phone this morning by ELi, and asked if Target is in violation of state law, Brown said, “I have no comment about that.”

Brown told Planning Commission last night that East Lansing’s requirements are unusual in Michigan and that that was why the Target Corporation lawyers had completely missed the need to apply.

In practice, requests for store sales of alcohol have generally sailed through the East Lansing approval process, at least in the last few years. Noting that, Commissioner Chris Wolf asked last night why the City has an SUP requirement for retail sales “when I don’t believe we have ever denied it to anyone?”

Cahill agreed, saying, “If we don’t regard it seriously, let’s get rid of the requirement.”

There has been only one objection raised publicly to allowing Target to sell liquor, and that has come from Michael Mansour, owner of Spartan Spirits, on Albert Avenue off the Ann Street Plaza.

Mansour told Council on August 13 that he had expected Target to sell beer and wine, but not liquor. He said that his store had provided two generations of his family with an honest living, and that he was afraid that Target would crush his family business.

“The City of East Lansing has made small business virtually impossible,” he told Council. Target, he said, has “other avenues for income,” and that they don’t need to sell liquor to be successful.

The application Target did make for an East Lansing SUP did not mention the intention to sell liquor — only beer and wine.

Planning Commissioner Leo Sell noted this before the vote. He joked that Target would be a good place for him to stop and buy liquor on the way home, but that it hadn’t actually applied to sell liquor. So why was Planning Commission voting to recommend that when it hadn’t been applied for?

City staff David Haywood told them liquor was already on the shelves and that liquor should be included in the motion recommending approval to Council.

The motion was consequently made to include beer, wine, and liquor, and Target received a unanimous vote to recommend approval to Council.

Planning Commission also voted unanimously last night to recommend approval of an SUP application from Northern United Brewing Company to make beer and sell alcohol at a forthcoming Jolly Pumpkin restaurant and brewery at 218 Albert Ave., in the new Center City retail space.

That application was made well in advance of the Jolly Pumpkin opening, which is expected later this year or early next year. The DDA and Planning Commission had no issues with the Jolly Pumpkin application, with some members specifically expressing enthusiasm for the chain coming to East Lansing.

Tony Grant, the CEO for Northern United Brewing Company, told the DDA and Planning Commission that he expects their craft brewery — which specializes in sour beers — to draw people to East Lansing from a wide area. He said the restaurant would be very family-friendly, and said last night that they do not want customers to experience “commoditized consumption” but rather to have a chance to learn about the making and the taste of great beers.

Grant told ELi that the challenge in opening the restaurant-brewery here is finding enough employees, as the labor market is challenging right now for operations like his. He said they need people working in positions “from front of house to back of house.” (He welcomes those interested to contact him directly.)

The SUP applications for Target and Jolly Pumpkin will now move on to City Council for the vote that really matters. That will likely take several weeks due to public notice posting requirements. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info