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SALT LAKE CITY — Population growth and increased drinking will drive the demand for new state-run liquor stores in Utah, where the number of liquor outlets is already well below what the law allows, according to a new report.
Zions Public Finance Inc. also identified 12 priority locations for new stores stretching from Pleasant Grove to Ogden in a study it presented Tuesday to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
"Obviously, we're not saying that the state should go and add 12 new liquor stores tomorrow," Scott Aylett, Zions financial analyst, told the state alcohol commission. "But there is definitely a need, both in regards to population as well as consumption."
Utah law allows one liquor store per 48,000 residents, making 63 the maximum number of stores allowed under the state's current population. The state runs 44 stores now, a difference of 19.
State liquor sales have grown 7.1 percent annually since 1998, while Utah's population has gone up 2 percent over that time period, the report shows. Average per capita alcohol consumption in Utah has increased from 2.4 gallons in 2011 to nearly 2.8 gallons in 2015, which is typical of national trends.
Alcohol commission Vice Chairman Jeff Wright said the study validates what DABC has long believed and what a University of Utah report showed three years ago.
"This is certainly a shot across the bow that we need to start to whittle down that number. Are we going to get 19? No, we're not going to get 19. Could we get four? Could we get five? Could we whittle away at those numbers? Absolutely, and I think we should," he said.
A new store is already scheduled to open in West Valley City in May, and DABC has money to build one in Syracuse, an area the U. report identified as needing a store. The Utah Legislature makes funding decisions for new liquor outlets.
Longtime alcohol policy watchdog Art Brown questioned whether one outlet per 48,000 residents is the right ratio for Utah.
"Why isn't it something else?" he asked, adding alcohol stores not only satisfy demand but drive it as well.
"I suspect that anytime you increase availability you increase consumption and the social debris that comes with it," said Brown, who serves as the Utah president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
State law calls for alcohol to be reasonably available, while ensuring public safety and curbing underage drinking and overimbibing.
Even though Utahns are buying and drinking more alcohol, underage drinking in the state has dropped dramatically in the past decade, according to the 2015 Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey. Utah also has lower DUI rates compared to the rest of the country.
"I think there's unmet public demand. I think we have good regulation to keep the public safe and keep kids from drinking underage," Wright said.
DABC commission Chairman John T. Nielsen said the Zions report "without question" shows the need for more liquor outlets.
"It strikes me, the more we make it available, the better the revenue stream to the state," he said.
Alcohol sales totaled $395.5 million last year, netting the state a $95.4 million profit. Liquor revenue goes to the state's general fund, school lunch program and public safety.
Sal Petilos, DABC executive director, said it's too early to say how many new stores the department might seek, noting it has taken a conservative approach in the past. New construction must first be approved by the state building board before the Legislature considers funding.