PLAINS TWP. — In 1996, the Woodlands Inn and Resort ranked first in the state when it came to the purchase of wine and spirits. But that was before casinos were legalized in Pennsylvania, before chain restaurants began eyeing the suburbs and before Luzerne County’s landscape included an arena that siphoned away some residents’ leisure money.
Today, the 44-year-old resort is battling for its liquor license, which owners say is essential to its continued operation, and it’s slipped out of the top liquor purchasing position in Luzerne County. It’s now ranked third — and is not in the top 125 statewide.
Gary Kornfeld, the CEO of The Woodlands, said the venue has felt the sting of additional hotels and entertainment facilities that have opened in the past decade, coupled with the sour economy that’s caused people to head out less frequently for fun and spend less when they do.
While the 2006 opening of the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs Casino just a mile north on state Route 315 from his venue has been the obvious factor in the huge dip in liquor sales, he said it’s a major — though not the only — one.
“I started seeing it trend down before then,” Kornfeld said. “I don’t think you can point your finger at them and say it’s all the casino’s fault,” he said. “But it is very difficult to compete with people that can give away drinks for nothing.”
The recession and increased competition caused people to seek out “the best bang for their buck and what better bang for your buck than not paying for drinks at all,” he said.
Once the casino opened, area bars and venues knew there’d be a ripple effect, Kornfeld said.
“We didn’t realize it would happen as quickly as it did,” Kornfeld said. Even had the casino opened somewhere else in the county instead of within a mile, he said the impact would have been felt.
In 1996 The Woodlands spent $506,907 on wine and spirits. In 2012 that total was about half, at $253,715.
As a businessman, Kornfeld does not chide the casino for what it’s done to his and other businesses. “They’re a competitor and they’re smart and they do it well,” Kornfeld said of the casino. “They’re good with their promotions.”
“You as a purveyor have to tighten your belt and still make a living,” he said, noting that the Woodlands has focused more of its business on food, banquets and events like weddings and less on alcohol, which used to account for about one-third of the business. Today, alcohol is “about 20 percent,” Kornfeld said.
“We’ve always been a chameleon and had the ability to change our identity,” Kornfeld said. That evolution won’t stop, though the resort’s Club Evolution may.
The Woodlands is appealing a decision by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board not to renew its liquor license based on 10 violations of the liquor code dating back to 1987 and 47 alleged incidents and disturbances reported to Plains Township police. Six of those 10 violations are 20 years old or older, Kornfeld said.
Luzerne County Judge Richard Hughes is expected to make a decision on the appeal later this year. The Woodlands can continue to serve alcohol while the appeal proceeds.
Kornfeld said losing the alcohol license means “we’ll be out of business.”
As much as the restaurant and hotel business has held its own, “we cannot exist and pay the mortgage without the ability to have those liquor sales,” Kornfeld said.