Oregon liquor interests seek loosening of rules

SPRINGFIELD — The stylized image of a martini glass on Saleem Noorani's "Cork & Bottle Shoppe" sign beckons passers-by to stop in for cocktail supplies.

For would-be customers who aren't driving by his Gateway area store, Noorani snagged the catchy Internet domain name, oregonliquor.com, to promote his premium spirits and cigars.

And like all good entrepreneurs, Noorani has expanded his business. He opened his Springfield shop in 2005 to build on the success of his original store by the same name in Corvallis.

None of these moves were legal a decade ago, before Noorani and other "liquor agents" as they're officially designated, started pushing state regulators to relax some of the rules.

But for all the modernization Noorani has brought to his business, it's still in keeping with the "control system" in place since 1933, when Oregon began emerging from the Prohibition Era.

Now, as then, state government buys, warehouses and owns the liquor until it reaches the bar operators and individuals who purchase it.

The state sets prices, regulates hours of operation, and determines what nonalcoholic products can and can't be placed on the shelves of Oregon's 243 liquor stores.

Noorani would like to see the state introduce more market reforms than just the ones he's successfully pushed for in the past decade. But after seven years in the trade, he says patience is a necessity.

"With the government, it takes a very long time to change," he said.

The winds of much more sweeping change are beginning to kick up around Oregon's system of controlling the sale of distilled spirits. In Washington state, voters this fall will decide on two competing initiatives that would privatize liquor sales. One is being pushed by Costco and the other by the state's liquor distributors. If either becomes law in Washington, then Oregon would be the West Coast's only remaining "control state" where the sale of booze is concerned.

And that could lead Oregon to reconsider its 77-year-old liquor-control system, said Marshall Coba, a Salem lobbyist who represents the Associated Liquor Stores of Oregon.

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