Special Reports

LCB working to protect communities

Most people in Centre County know the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board as the operator of the county's six Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits stores.

And, indeed, operating the state’s 619 stores — and providing the best possible selection, prices and customer service — is an important part of the agency’s mission.

Because of those store sales, the PLCB is able to pay good returns to its shareholders, the residents of Pennsylvania. In fiscal 2008-09, statewide store sales generated $494.5 million in profits and taxes for the General Fund, paying for critical government services such as education, health care, public safety and infrastructure — in Centre County and across the commonwealth.

But the PLCB is also present here in a less visible but equally important way. Another mission, key to our formation by the General Assembly in 1933, is regulating the state’s 17,000 liquor license holders, or licensees, to ensure they operate in compliance with state law and in the best interests of the communities they serve.

Here’s a high-profile case in point. Three years ago, after it had accrued numerous citations for violations of the liquor code, was repeatedly the scene of disturbances that required the presence of local police, and a student was fatally stabbed there, Sammark Inc., operator of three Pugh Street bars, was informed by the PLCB Bureau of Licensing that its license would not be renewed.

This was a decision the PLCB reached with the help of local police and the state police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which enforces the state liquor code.

The code, established by the General Assembly after Prohibition and modified over the decades, sets procedures for how community residents can work to close a nuisance bar.

If local officials determine that a bar poses an imminent threat to the community — with drug activity or dangerous crowds, for example — they can seek to have courts padlock the bar under Section 611 of the code. Or residents can vote to prohibit liquor licenses in the community altogether, that is, go “dry.”

But the most common way to minimize the impact of nuisance bars is through community cooperation with local police and the BLCE, which cites establishments for violations of the code.

Sammark’s recent history in State College included numerous violations for noise and minors allowed on the premises. Municipal police were called to the bars when minors were served drinks, and, tragically, in February 2006, when a young patron was fatally stabbed outside the bar.

So in January 2007, when the bars’ liquor license was up for renewal, the PLCB Bureau of Licensing recommended against renewing it, citing a lengthy list of abuses of the bars’ license privileges.

This is an action the agency took more than 100 times that year with nuisance bars across the state.

It set in motion the procedure outlined in the law: A public hearing was held at which representatives of the bars and of law enforcement testified. The issue then came before our board in Harrisburg, which voted unanimously in July 2008 not to renew the license.

The challenge could have ended there, but the licensee exercised his right to appeal our decision in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas; and, as was also his right, remained in business for the duration of the appeal. He did the same while continuing the appeal to Commonwealth Court.

It was not until November 2009, when, faced with the prospect of losing the appeal and all rights to the license, the licensee agreed to close the bars and sell the license. The agreement came with the stipulation that the sale would be to an unrelated third party, and the seller would not seek employment in or an interest in any other local licensed establishment.

Now the community is free of a nuisance bar. Whoever acquires Sammark’s license will start business with a clean slate. The PLCB, the state police and our colleagues in local law enforcement will continue to work to ensure every licensee operates within the law and as a good neighbor.

Patrick J. Stapleton III is chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.