The 10,000 square foot liquor store proposed for the second floor of the Columbia Wegmans would be 90 percent owned by the husband of Colleen Wegman, the president of Wegmans, according to testimony by Ralph Michael Smith at Tuesday’s Liquor Board hearing.
Smith, who has been the of the proposal, revealed at a packed hearing before the Howard County Liquor Board Tuesday night that he has a 10 percent stake in the business.
IAD LLC, a Delaware company owned by Christopher O’Donnell, would own the other 90 percent. Smith testified a member of Wegman’s legal department steered him toward O’Donnell to provide capital to start the store.
“I’m not conversant with those types of sources,” said Smith. “Chris was suggested to me as a possible source of capital. I looked into his background; he is a venture capitalist. I thought it was a good fit.”
Smith was vague about how much the business would cost to start up, saying it would be in the hundreds of thousands. Smith denied knowing who O’Donnell’s wife was.
“I don’t even know what her job title is,” said Smith of Colleen Wegman.
The hearing drew about 100 liquor store owners and managers from Howard, Prince George’s and Balitmore counties. One after the other they came forward to offer emotional testimony as to why a liquor store at Wegmans would hurt their businesses. Even before the meeting the proposal .
Two lawyers who represented local businesses also quizzed Smith about his plans.
Maryland law prohibits liquor licenses being used in conjunction with a chain grocery store. Smith denied any involvement with Wegmans. He said the store would not participate in setting prices, picking inventory, transporting his products or storing liquor. He said he would not carry or sell any Wegmans inventory.
Smith’s testimony did little to convince the small liquor store owners in the room.
Amran Pasha of Columbia said Smith is “a front for Wegmans.”
Parth Dave, of Pikesville, said, “This is a big chain, it’s going to get the money and take it out of the state.” And Sandeep Patel of Laurel said the proposal “looks like a Wegmans operation from the bottom up.”
There were so many small business owners prepared to testify that the meeting ran four and a half hours. With 20 people left to talk, the meeting was adjourned because the building had to be closed at 11 p.m. The meeting will resume on June 14.
For that meeting, liquor board member Anne Santos asked Smith to be prepared to provide more information on the entrance to the store, how he plans to transport liquor into the store and that the landlord be present.
After the meeting, Smith said the backlash was expected.
“I think the existing businesses don’t want additional competition,” said Smith. “I don’t think it would have made a difference if I was providing 90 percent of the financing and someone else was providing 10.”
He said he plans on continuing to fight for the store.
“Frankly, I’m more interested in pursuing the store,” said Smith. “I want consumers to have a lot of choices.”