By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

In 2015, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission embarked on what it called its largest liquor outlet expansion since Prohibition.

Nearly two years later, that expansion is coming to Central Oregon. The OLCC is opening a window for retail expansion, or “open recruitment,” as early as May.

Nearly anything goes. Knitting supply shop with a liquor counter? A whiskey selection in a sporting goods store? All reasonable applications are welcome, according to OLCC officials.

“It’s exciting. The process is pretty wide open,” said Steve Marks, OLCC executive director, on Thursday. “You can apply as a retail grocery store, as a bike shop. Potentially, we’re looking at those kinds of innovations, in addition to the normal distilled spirits only or nonexclusive, beer, wine and distilled spirits stores.”

The OLCC has yet to announce when the application window will open, although it could be as soon as May. The number of contracts it will award is still undetermined, Marks said. The emphasis will be on the quality of applications rather than reaching a target number, said OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott on Wednesday.

“Each time we got out to solicit people to submit applications, it takes a while,” she said. “You want people to put together a good application, secure retail space and give them time to work out the details.”

This next phase of expansion is the third since 2015, the same year an association of grocery stores, Oregonians for Competition, proposed a ballot initiative that would have privatized liquor sales in Oregon and sidelined the OLCC. The initiative qualified for the November 2016 ballot, but the industry association instead withdrew the measure.

Marks said the OLCC initiative to expand into grocery stores and other nontraditional retail settings wasn’t “entirely driven” by the privatization initiative.

“No doubt we did a lot of work around that time,” he said.

The OLCC in fall 2015 advertised the first phase of expansion in the Portland metro area: Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, Scott said. The agency set a goal of 17 contracts but awarded 12 in March 2016. Phase two targeted Benton, Lane and Linn counties. The agency extended the deadline for applications because the number received fell short, Scott said. The OLCC awarded six contracts in that phase this year.

Phase three is the largest geographic area in the expansion project thus far. It encompasses 14 counties in Central, Eastern and northeastern Oregon.

The OLCC has lagged behind retail liquor contracts as the state population grew, Scott said. The ratio has gone from about one store per 12,000 residents in the 1980s to one for every 16,000 now, with a higher ratio in the Portland area.

“Before we started open recruitment, we had not expanded the number of liquor stores. It was one here, one there kinda thing for years,” she said. “We have not kept up with population growth.”

The last new liquor store in Deschutes County opened in Sunriver North in April 2012, while the last new store in Bend opened in November 2004, according to the OLCC.

“One reason we’re being careful about this, we don’t want to diminish the existing market,” Marks said.

Big retailers like Safeway or Wal-Mart, for example, could apply for individual sites only, not make a blanket application for all its locations, he said. He said legislation pending in Salem now would, if passed, allow a single point-of-sale for liquor inside existing businesses.

“We need to bring liquor into the existing retail environment,” Marks said.

At the liquor store in south Bend, in a commercial plaza on S. Third Street anchored by an Albertsons grocery store, co-owner Allison Cogen on Friday was just four days into ownership. She and her husband, Drew Cogen, owners of the neighboring Postal Connections, bought the contract from the previous owner, Robin Holmberg, who operated the store for 27 years before retiring, she said. Cogen said she had no problem with more liquor stores in town.

It’s not likely the neighboring Albertsons would be awarded a contract anyway, she said. And the Cogens plan on renovating their store with an eye to making beer and wine sales, eventually.

“I’m fine with having competition,” Allison Cogen said. “A competitive edge is good for customers.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,