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Follow KUNC's coverage of the 2022 midterm election, and get results on all the state races here.

Proposition 124 is an expensive fight dividing Colorado’s independent liquor stores

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Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
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David Ross said it’s only taken five years for his independent liquor store to become a staple in Bennett, Colorado.

Bennett is a small town you might miss if you blinked while driving on Interstate 70 east of Denver.

Ross said his store, Big Fella Wine and Liquors, sponsors the high school football team and a community event called Bennett Days.

Ross also enjoys traveling to craft breweries around the state to personally test the beers he decides to sell.

But he says he’s still learning about Colorado’s long and complicated list of liquor laws. And it took him a while to realize he wouldn’t be able to open more locations because of those laws.

“I would love to have multiple liquor stores,” Ross said. “I’m chomping at the bit.”

Proposition 124 would let Ross expand his business. Eventually.

If voters approve it, liquor stores could open an unlimited number of locations in Colorado by 2037.

“I'm asking just to have an even playing field,” Ross said. “And that's why the propositions [are] so important to me.”

Ross says there’s a sense of urgency. The grocery and convenience stores in the shopping centers near him got the green light to start selling full-strength beer in 2018, a move he claims is cutting into his sales. And state lawmakers recently passed a law to let grocers sell wine and spirits starting in 2037.

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Scott Franz
Budweiser brought it's iconic horses to the state Capitol in 2018 to celebrate grocery stores being able to sell full strength beer.

“If we don't grow and change with that and get ourselves in a better position to compete with them, it will put us out of business,” Ross said. “I mean, right now, King Soopers can have more liquor licenses than I do.”

Over in Fort Collins, specialty liquor store owner Matt Dinsmore also sees large grocery stores as a threat to his shop, Wilbur’s Total Beverage.

But Dinsmore doesn’t think letting liquor stores become chains is the answer. He’s actually campaigning against Proposition 124. He fears it would be bad for business.

There is nobody in the state who could scale up the way that some of these [larger] chains can, whether it's [Total Wine & More] or Amazon or you name it,” Dinsmore said. “The ability to do that is gone. And so you stomp out this little ecosystem that, quite frankly, we've nurtured for 90 years.”

But these two liquor store owners in Bennet and Fort Collins are just pint-sized players in what is becoming one of the election’s most expensive fights.

A chain called Total Wine & More is really the keg in this battle. This business alone has donated more than $3 million supporting the ballot measure. And it’s no mom-and-pop liquor store.

Total Wine & More has more than 200 superstores around the country.

KUNC reached out to the chain’s owners to talk about their huge investment in the election, but they never called back.

Meanwhile, Dinsmore, the Proposition 124 critic in Fort Collins, says giving Total Wine the green light to expand could put him and others out of business.

“We've seen in states like Minnesota, they basically come in [and] predatory price and drive everybody out of business and then there is no competition,” Dinsmore said.

Minnesota has nine Total Wine locations, and six small liquor stores have closed, citing the chain’s arrival in their neighborhoods in recent years — that’s according to reporting from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Back in Bennett, Colorado, David Ross’ store is nowhere near the size and scale of Total Wine & More. But he’s fighting for the same thing: a chance to expand his business.

“The total wines, the big box retailers, I don't care how you define them, they can all have multiple liquor licenses. So my question that always comes back to them is ‘why can't I?’”

Proposition 124 isn’t the only alcohol question on the ballot. Voters are deciding whether grocery stores should be able to sell wine starting next year. Another question would let third-party companies like Doordash and Instacart deliver booze directly to our homes.

Mom-and-pop liquor store owners are largely against these other measures.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.