Liquor Supply Snags Keep Utah City Dry ... Literally

On Friday and Saturday nights, the line to get a bottle of wine at the liquor store in this southern Utah town can stretch out the back door. The storage area of the town's lone liquor store is often stacked so high and so wide with cases of alcohol it's tough to walk or push a dolly through. But it doesn't take long for the piles to shrink and for customers to start complaining the store is out of stock. "It's been this way probably for a good year and a half," said Lee Scarlet, who manages the store. "It gets worse and worse and worse."

There's a supply problem facing those who imbibe in this city of 126,000, where spectacular red rock scenery, sunny weather and affordable proximity to Las Vegas have contributed to a record population boom. St. George has a single state-run liquor outlet — on the city's west side — and its inventory is often depleted.

In Utah, liquor, wine and beer with an alcohol content over 3.2 percent by weight can only be purchased in state liquor stores. State law sets the number of liquor stores based on state, not local, populations. The law says the number of liquor stores can't exceed one per 48,000 people in the state.

"So all the liquor stores in the state could be in Salt Lake City," said Dennis Kellen, deputy director of operations for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

But that's a problem here. A Census report released last month showed the population of St. George and its suburbs has grown by nearly 40 percent since 2000, transforming it from a southern Utah secret to the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan area.

Kellen said the department does its best to provide the stores where they are needed. For example, the estimated 8,000 population of the mountain resort town of Park City does not justify having two liquor stores. But the city is surrounded by three ski resorts, hosts the Sundance Film Festival and has thriving summer tourism, and so it has two outlets.

St. George "just got away from us," Kellen said.

The city is a seemingly odd place for rampant thirst given its ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a clear and widely observed ban on drinking alcohol. The city was founded by Mormon pioneers as a cotton town in 1861, and served as the winter home for Brigham Young, then the church's president and Utah's territorial governor.

But while LDS church members still live in St. George, its population has diversified and it is now also home to an eclectic mix of retirees and outdoor enthusiasts drawn to the surrounding red rock desert.

State officials are working to provide a second store, but it's a long process. The department began asking for money for a second store three years ago, and finding a location has posed an even tougher challenge.

The first site was nixed after the president of Dixie State College protested it was too close to campus despite meeting the state's laws on distance from schools, churches and parks. A second proposal was denied in March because city commissioners said it would be too near an area already congested by traffic.

The city doesn't have to sign off on a site, but the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has been responsive to objections. On Thursday, the department submitted a proposal for a 10,000-square-foot store, located in a commercial zone, to the St. George City Council for review, said city spokesman Marc Mortensen.

But for those seeking a quick fix, it may be awhile: Kellen estimates it could take until Christmas to get a second store up and running.

In the meantime, local residents and businesses are making do. The lone store supplies 52 restaurants in the area, and owners are finding out they need to be creative — and competitive — to keep their wine lists stocked.

"You have to put in an order and pick it up the same day, or they might not have it," said David Brown, the food and beverage manager for the clubhouse at the nearby Entrada Club.

When the clubhouse has its monthly specialty wine dinner, he said, they order from a Salt Lake City store and make the 600-mile round trip drive.

There's also another, sneakier option. Some residents drive a half hour south on Interstate 15 to Lee's Discount Liquors in Mesquite, Nev. Bringing alcohol into Utah from the state is against the law, punishable by six months in jail, a $1,000 fine and booze confiscation.

Still, on a recent afternoon, six of eight cars in the parking lot had Utah license plates.

One man, who didn't want his name printed because he planned to illegally transport liquor, said he went to the St. George liquor store a year ago and couldn't get what he wanted.

"They could open up 10 of them and I wouldn't go back," he said.