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Want to win a Florida liquor license? Entry period starts Monday

Liquor behind the bar at the Pelican Pub in downtown St. Petersburg shown earlier this year. Florida's annual drawing for quota liquor licenses starts Monday. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times file, 2018]
Liquor behind the bar at the Pelican Pub in downtown St. Petersburg shown earlier this year. Florida's annual drawing for quota liquor licenses starts Monday. [DIRK SHADD | Times file, 2018]
Published Aug. 20, 2018

Bo Butler was in the dentist's chair a few months ago when the hygienist casually mentioned that her husband had won a Florida liquor license.

"As soon as she said, 'Yeah, we can sell it for upwards of $300,000,' it kind of piqued my interest," Butler said.

It piqued his interest so much that he plans to be among those entering Florida's annual drawing for quota liquor licenses when the 45-day application period starts Monday.

This year, an unusually large number of applicants is expected, due to a near-record number of new licenses (59 in 30 counties) and increased awareness of a drawing that the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco has never done much to publicize.

Until the Tampa Bay Times ran a story earlier this year, many people had never heard of the lottery. The potential rewards are great — licenses in many counties can be sold for at least $100,000 and they can bring as much as $500,000 in tourist-heavy ones like Monroe and Walton.

EARLIER: Most of Tampa Bay's new liquor licenses won by applicants from South Florida, Tallahassee

Florida is one of 17 states with quotas on the number of liquor licenses they issue, and it is among even fewer that distribute them via a lottery. A county gets one license for every 7,500 increase in population: This year, Pasco and Hernando each get one and Hillsborough gets five (Pinellas, largely built out, gets none.)

The number of new licenses has steadily climbed since 2015 when just 30 were issued.

"The state continues to grow, which creates these population-dependent licenses and lucrative opportunities in the hospitality space," said attorney Anthony Glover, a former deputy director of the beverage division. "It's an exciting time to be involved."

Unlike most beverage licenses, which are limited to beer and wine or a specific location, liquor quota licenses are coveted because they can be used almost anywhere in the county to open a bar or package store. And the only ways to get one are to buy it or win it.

You can enter the drawing for any or all of the 30 counties but you can enter only once for each county and you must pay a nonrefundable fee of $100 per county. Starting Monday, entry forms can be printed from the beverage division's web site or obtained from a district office (For the Tampa Bay area, it is 1313 N Tampa St. in Tampa.)

The form must be filled out completely, signed and mailed to the division's Tallahassee headquarters with a check or money order for the total amount.

After the application period ends Oct. 3, division employees will spend months going through all of the entries. For the most recent drawing, held in April, there were 15,716.

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"You'd be surprised at how many people don't even sign (the form)," said Horace Moody, owner of the Beverage Law Institute in Tallahassee. "They have to make sure they're filled out properly and then cross- check to make sure they didn't try to enter twice."

Sometime next year, the computerized, double-random drawings will be held. For each county, a name is drawn, then a placement number. Joe Smith's name could be the first selected but he's out of luck if he places third and there are just two license for that county.

Winners have 45 days to apply for the license. They must be 21, submit fingerprints and have no felony convictions in the past 15 years. They also must pay a license fee, which varies by county, and a one-time fee of $10,500, which goes into a state fund for alcohol and drug abuse education.

Then they can "transfer" or sell the license.

Moody, whose company brokers sales, estimates that more than 80 percent of licenses are sold.

"You say you're going to open a package store but you have to rent a place, get it all built out, then to have a decent inventory with everything people want it's going to be in the $200,000-plus range," Moody said. "It's more than just wining a license, it's the investment."

Currently, quota licenses sell for around $125,000 in Pasco and Hernando, $175,000 in Miami-Dade, $200,000 in Pinellas and more than $300,000 in Orange. They go for about $135,000 in Hillsborough but with five new licenses, prices are apt to drop.

"It's supply and demand, ain't any different than anything else for sale out there," Moody said.

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Butler, who works for a flooring contractor and heard about the lottery at his dentist's office, says he'd probably sell a license if he won one. Gary Biddle, who owns a pub in Illinois, might open a pub in Florida if he wins.

"I have a partner, and I think we're going to pick probably five or six counties each, so that gives us two chance per county," he said.

Tom Murphy, an Apollo Beach retiree, plans to enter drawings for counties like Hillsborough and Broward with multiple licenses.

"Seems like kind of a fun thing to do," said Murphy, former CFO of a Detroit food bank. "There nothing like that up there (in Michigan) except for the Easter Seals lottery where you can win a car — but I never did."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate


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