KEVIN LEININGER: Fort Wayne company asks: Why should our $10 million expansion be treated differently?
Now that the state has relaxed its absurd law prohibiting Sunday carry-out liquor sales, City Council will have the chance to do something equally sensible concerning tax breaks for growing businesses — and help secure a $10 million investment by a longtime Fort Wayne firm in the process.
In one sense, there’s nothing new about AALCO Distributing Co.’s plan to build a $10 million facility on 26 acres near Washington Center Road and U.S. 33. I reported 10 years ago how the liquor wholesaler that has operated at 909 Grant Ave. since 1949 had outgrown its current five-building complex and had purchased land on the city’s northwest side so it would have room to expand within five years or so.
Better late than never, that time has finally arrived, and President Deb Niezer hopes to break ground by May with just a little financial help from the city. She’s hardly the first developer or business executive to seek an abatement to offset the cost of expansion, but state law prohibits liquor distributors from seeking such incentives for real estate improvements, and city code denies them to any project by an applicant holding a liquor license.
Abatements temporarily reduce taxes on new buildings and equipment, and Niezer sees no reason why they should be denied to distributors simply because of their product line. City Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, apparently agrees and has introduced a bill that would allow AALCO and any future liquor distributor to seek tax savings only on their new equipment, which in AALCO’s case will amount to about a $1 million investment. Council is expected to discuss and possibly vote on the proposal Tuesday.
“I don’t feel distributors should be singled out,” Niezer said — and she’s right.
Then again, people who operate massage parlors, hot-tub facilities, race tracks, tobacco stores, arcades, gun retailers and wholesalers, pawn shops and package liquor stores probably feel the same way but will remain ineligible for tax breaks even if council approves the change in law intended to benefit a single company.
Are such prohibitions really any less arbitrary than state laws limiting the times and temperatures of liquor and beer sales? If council is willing to allow AALCO to apply for and receive an abatement on its equipment purchase, why should a firearms distributor — maybe even one looking to flee a gun control-happy state — not be eligible for the same thing? Why should only some legal forms of retail be explicitly targeted? Isn’t that function more suitably left to zoning regulators?
Some council members routinely vote against all tax breaks on the principle of not wanting government to choose “winners and losers.” But isn’t that precisely what both state and local governments do when they make incentives available to some business categories but not others? The city and county already award tax breaks on the basis of formulas that consider such factors as salary and benefits, number of jobs created and investment; why should 100 jobs paying $40,000 a year at a gun distributorship be considered less worthy than jobs at a small factory or even a liquor wholesaler that currently employs 90 and maybe more in the future?
Make no mistake: Niezer isn’t threatening to pull AALCO out of town if council doesn’t grant an abatement that could save the company thousands of dollars over several years. Niezer said she’s committed to Fort Wayne and will make certain the buildings on Grant Avenue will be well-maintained even after AALCO moves out and makes the space available for other tenants. Allowing AALCO to be treated like any other company is more than simple fairness, it’s just common sense. But wouldn’t it also make sense to consider whether other once-taboo businesses should also be recognized as potential economic assets?
Way back in the 1940s, Gunnar Elliott ran Gunnar’s Tavern, was a college basketball and football official, broadcast sports for WOWO radio and sold sporting goods through his Main Auto store. By the end of the decade he had opened the All American Liquor Company, which is now one of 24 distributors in Indiana and the oldest in the area. Operating in one new and more-efficient building instead of five old ones, with plenty or room to grow, is just the sort of local success story City Council should want to reward and, if possible, duplicate. So should the Indiana Legislature, if it’s done fiddling with liquor laws.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.