TORONTO - Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa isn't shutting the door to selling alcohol in convenience stores — a move the governing Liberals have long opposed.
Asked repeatedly Wednesday whether he'd allow convenience stores to sell booze, Sousa wouldn't rule it out.
He said there are no plans to change the structure of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario — one of the largest purchasers and retailers of alcohol in the world — which turned over $1.65 billion to the province last year.
The Crown corporation is expanding its reach by setting up what it calls Express outlets inside 10 grocery stores, as well as adding more retail stores, Sousa said. But he'll always keep looking at alternatives that would support Ontario's economy.
"It's prudent for us to always view opportunities should they be of net benefit to the province," he said.
"We'll look at what's going to be in the best interests to the people of Ontario and to the province."
Ontario is currently facing an $11.7-billion deficit, which the Liberals have promised to eliminate by 2017-18.
Sousa's comments came after Mac's Convenience Stores said it would create 1,600 full-time jobs if its Ontario stores were allowed to sell beer, wine and spirits.
The chain — owned by Alimentation Couche-Tard (TSX:ATD.B) — made a pitch for selling booze at its 547 stores in Ontario on Wednesday.
"The people of Ontario are telling their politicians that it's time to modernize alcohol retailing in this province," said Tom Moher, vice-president of operations for Mac's in Ontario.
Sales at stores that sell alcohol are significantly higher, requiring more staff to handle the demand, he said in a statement.
"Many of our stores are in rural Ontario, which needs jobs," he added. "We want to provide them."
A study commissioned by the Ontario Convenience Stores Association found that the provincial government would receive more revenue if alcohol sales were permitted in convenience stores.
Two Mac's stores in Thamesford, Ont. and Craigleith that are allowed to sell alcohol have significantly higher sales and require more staff to handle the extra demand, Moher said.
Retailers, in partnership with the LCBO, operate some 219 agency stores in communities without large enough population bases to support regular LCBO stores.
Moher said the private sector can build facilities to sell beer, wine and spirits, saving the LCBO from such endeavours.
Former Liberal premier David Peterson promised to allow corner stores to sell beer and wine in the 1980s, but it never happened. Ex-premier Dalton McGuinty refused to do it despite numerous appeals from the industry.
Sousa's predecessor Dwight Duncan shot the proposal down last year after the Ontario Convenience Stores Association delivered a petition with 112,500 signatures supporting the idea of broader retail availability of beer and wine.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said the province should permit beer, wine and spirits to be sold in corner stores and has also floated the idea of selling part or all of the LCBO.
Quebec-based Couche-Tard operates 665 corporate stores in Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador, that sell beer. The company also sells beer at 3,000 stores in the United States, and 1,400 in Europe.
Couche-Tard is Canada's largest convenience store operator and the second-largest in North America with more than $15.9 million in annual revenues and about 53,000 employees around the world.
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