Being the middleman for bulk liquor sales at Harrah’s not as lucrative as it seemsWritten by Becky Johnson
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Harrah’s Cherokee casino bought nearly half a million dollars of liquor over the past year, netting almost $50,000 in profits each for the ABC stores in Sylva and Bryson City — which had the privileges of being the casino’s suppliers.
But despite the numbers on paper, it is hasn’t proved quite the windfall the two towns hoped.
“It was nothing like they said it was going to be,” said Monty Clampitt, chairman of the Bryson City ABC board.
“People thought there would be a world of money flowing in all of a sudden if we did this,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “I think it was a little surprising that there was not near as much money coming in.”
The casino began serving alcohol to customers last year. The Cherokee reservation was — and still mostly is — dry. The tribe made an exception for the casino, but lacked an ABC store of its own. So it turned to the ABC stores in neighboring Sylva and Bryson City to buy from.
Since the reservation lies partly in Jackson and partly in Swain counties, figuring out which store had dibs on being the casino’s alcohol supplier got complicated. Ultimately, the stores in Bryson and Sylva launched a joint venture with the sole mission of filling bulk liquor orders for Harrah’s and decided to split any profits 50-50.
Both towns hoped it would be a lucrative deal for them, since profits from the ABC stores go straight to town coffers.
But neither town has seen a penny yet, despite being more than a year into the operation.
“We haven’t gotten any of it yet. None,” said Pennington.
The joint venture has cleared $100,000 in profit so far, so at first blush it’s not clear why that money hasn’t been meted out to the towns along with the regular ABC dividends.
But Clampitt and Pennington said the profits to date have been used to build up working capital and inventory.
Roughly half the profits are tied up in inventory — $50,000 in liquor is stacked on pallets and shelves in the back storeroom of the Bryson City ABC store, ready and waiting to fill the weekly orders coming from Harrah’s.
Another $50,000 is sitting in the checking account, a cushion to ensure smooth cash flow, Clampitt said.
Since the state warehouse will only ship to local ABC stores once a month, they have to buy the liquor up front.
Harrah’s makes out a shopping list of what it will probably need, but its actual order may vary, so it could be weeks before the inventory moves off the shelves.
“You can’t tell a customer what to buy,” Clampitt said.
But with inventory and reserves now built up, profits made from here on out will be paid out quarterly. Sylva and Bryson City can each expect checks for $11,600 to arrive any day, a payout from the second quarter, Clampitt said.
Cherokee forays into ABC store of its own
No sooner than Bryson and Sylva’s joint venture has started paying off, however, and the end is in sight. Cherokee is well on its way to an ABC enterprise of its own and within the year will stop buying from its neighbors.
From the beginning, Cherokee has wanted to setup its own ABC store, selling the liquor to Harrah’s itself and keeping the profits for the tribe rather than sending them down the road to Bryson and Sylva.
The logistics of starting one haven’t been easy. The tribe ultimately needed a special bill passed by the General Assembly allowing it to start its own ABC venture, so it can order directly from the state warehouse without going through the Sylva or Bryson stores as middlemen.
The Sylva and Bryson stores weren’t planning on riding the casino’s liquor gravy train forever.
“I figured it wouldn’t be long before the tribe got it worked out,” said Larry Callicut, town manager of Bryson City.
“I was not at all surprised when the Cherokee said they can just buy stuff directly from the state,” Pennington added.
It will be several more months, and possibly even a year, before the new Cherokee ABC board is up and running, however. There’s a complicated computer system to set up, a staff to hire and a place needed to hold all those waiting pallets of liquor.
“They’ve got some organizing planning and what not to do,” Clampitt said.
Once that’s done the Sylva and Bryson joint venture will become obsolete. It would make sense to shut down the operation and close out the books, liquidating all that inventory and cashing out the checking account.
At that point, the two towns could expect a final payout of $50,000 each.
That’s a good chunk of change for small, cash-strapped, recession-burdened towns to clear. It’s better than nothing, Clampitt supposed, but it wasn’t exactly free money.
“It’s been a whole lot of work,” Clampitt said.
The Bryson ABC store lends its staff to the joint venture serving the casino. It takes labor to manage the inventory: keep up with what’s running low, place monthly orders with the state, parcel out weekly shipments to the casino and all the related bookkeeping.
They also personally deliver weekly orders to the casino — a perk afforded to their special customer. (Run-of-the-mill bars and restaurants have to do their own pick-up.)
The Bryson ABC store gets compensated for some of those hours. In June, for example, the store billed the joint operation for $607 worth of its employees’ time.
But the Bryson board also donates some of the labor and overhead to the joint venture. It doesn’t pro-rate a portion of its utilities to the Cherokee operation, for example. Nor does it bill for the labor of unloading the truckload of orders coming from the Raleigh warehouse each month.
The two stores have finally paid themselves back for start-up loans taken from their own bank accounts to get things up and running — namely building up the necessary inventory.
The stores also had to purchase a $15,000 computer system for the joint Cherokee venture. The state ABC system is particular about the software used by all the stores, requiring a certain type of program that interfaces directly to the state warehouse, not only for placing orders but also allowing the state to track the whereabouts of every bottle of liquor.
The state wouldn’t let Bryson’s ABC store use its existing computer system, since the Cherokee venture was technically considered a new standalone enterprise, Clampitt said. So both stores dipped into their own funds to buy the computer system, cutting into profits they would have made otherwise.
Pennington said he was skeptical from the start.
“It was such shall we say a unique situation to start that combined store, I personally never felt like it was done for the best interest of the people of Jackson County to begin with,” Pennington said.
Pennington said he actually advocated against it, but the state ABC people made them do it.
“It wasn’t our idea at all,” Pennington said.
As for the $15,000 computer system? Bryson and Sylva ABC boards have already written that off and deducted it from the Harrah’s profits. But it would be nice to get a little something back for it when the joint venture is shut down, Clampitt said. He hopes they could sell it to the new Cherokee ABC board.
Coincidentally, a countywide alcohol referendum on the ballot in Jackson County next year could lead to a new ABC store in Cashiers, which if passed, might just need a computer system as well.
Why so complicated?
Liquor sales in North Carolina are a tightly regimented affair. All liquor coming in to the state makes its first stop at warehouse in Raleigh. Local ABC stores in turn order from the state warehouse, a means of controlling the sale and distribution of liquor to the public.
Local stores act as middlemen. They get the liquor at wholesale prices, then mark it up to resell to customers, both to the general public and to bar and restaurant owners. The state dictates how much of a markup is allowed, about 25 percent.
After covering overhead and salaries, local ABC stores turn the remaining profits over to the local government, either the town or county, or in some cases both.