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city politics

The debate about liquor retailing is heating up. Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has come out for private sales in some form. Two candidates to replace Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader, Sandra Pupatello and Glen Murray, said last week that they are in favour, too.

Let's hope that this is not just another false start. People all over Ontario would gain from the convenience and retail competition that would come with breaking up the monopolies enjoyed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the Brewers Retail. But cities such as Toronto stand to gain in special, urban ways.

Toronto, needless to say, is a city of immigrants. Many of them get their first foot on the ladder by running convenience stores. Allowing them to sell beer and wine, at least, would put lots more money in their pockets.

If people could pick up a case of beer at the corner store, they would be more likely to buy other things while they're at it. Corner stores would enjoy higher traffic and bigger sales. As a result, they could hire more people. The Ontario Convenience Stores Association notes that stores of the Quickie chain in Ottawa employ an average of five people, while across the river in Quebec, where they can sell beer and wine, they employ 13.

Of course, not all beer and wine sales would gravitate to corner stores if we got rid of the two retail monopolies. Supermarkets and big-box stores would gain, too. We would probably even get some big-box liquor stores. But, of course, these employ lots of people, too.

The argument that only the LCBO and Brewers Retail can save us all from underage drinking doesn't hold up. Convenience stores and other retailers already do age checks for cigarette and lottery sales. You could expect even tougher checks if they got the right to sell booze. In any case, independent retailers all around the world have managed it without the roof falling in.

There is another reason why loosening the rules on liquor retailing would help Toronto. It has to do with urban form. Cities benefit from a diversity of retail formats, a profusion of different kinds of stores. In Alberta, which privatized liquor retailing in 1993, the number of outlets has soared from 803 (including hotels offering off-sale booze) to 1,987.

In a more open market, we might see one store specializing in Belgian beers and another in Chilean wines. We might see a store selling only whisky, run by someone who knows everything there is to know about single malts. This would be a grand opportunity for smart, innovative shopkeepers.

It would also be a boon for the urban streetscape, which would see a wave of new and interesting storefronts. What a relief that would be from the banality of the LCBO and the ugliness of the Brewers Retail, which seemed to consider it a stroke of marketing genius when it renamed its boxy outlets The Beer Store.

These things are a blight on the urban landscape. In my own downtown neighbourhood, a Beer Store sits on a prime corner of a busy street, fronted by a big, empty parking lot and making no concession to the vibrant, evolving neighbourhood around it. By the look of it, it could as just easily be in Brampton. What a waste of real estate.

A few blocks away in Liberty Village, the brewers monopoly has opened a "Beer Store Boutique." With its wood floors and walls of refrigerated brew, it is a sad attempt to bring beer retailing into the 21st century. Imagine how much better independents could do.

Our current alcohol-retailing regime dates from 1927, a legacy of the end of Prohibition. It is time to throw it on the scrap heap, not just for the sake of the buying public, but for the sake of the city.

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