Three more liquor licenses are coming to Billings, and they're sure to be in high demand.
The city's quota is being raised this year to allow for an additional two all-beverage licenses, for sale of hard alcohol, beer or wine, and one beer and wine license, the Department of Revenue announced this week.
The increase is a coveted opportunity for Billings businesses to acquire a liquor license on the cheap, and the lottery to distribute them will likely draw hundreds of applicants.
"Sometimes it's just astronomical," said longtime Reno Club owner John Blair.
For the past several years, Billings has received bumps in the number of licenses available as the city continues to grow, Liquor Control Division Administrator Shauna Helfert said. Adjustments to the distribution of Montana's license quotas are made annually as local populations change.
The Billings licenses are among 12 being made available this year around the state. Quotas were also raised in Sidney, Dillon, Plains, Broadwater County and Jefferson County, the department said.
The total number of liquor licenses in the state is capped by the decades-old quota system, so adjustments are made by offering "floater" licenses, which allow applicants in a specified area to purchase one from another part of the state.
Cities that are supersaturated with all-beverage licenses, such as Butte or Helena, are attractive options because licenses in those places often sell for less than in cities with higher demand. In Butte, for instance, a shrinking population and licenses that were grandfathered into the quota system in 1947 has resulted in a city with many more licenses today than its size should permit.
All-beverage licenses in Butte have been selling for less than $100,000 in recent years, while Billings businesses have, in some cases, purchased theirs for a half-million dollars or more, according to a list of transactions published by the Department of Revenue.
The gambling allowance included in any all-beverage license is removed when purchased as a "floater," according to state law.
Blair said the value of the license drops without the gambling allowance attached. They often catch the eye of chain restaurants, he said.
Still, Blair and others expect the lottery, as in those past, will draw 100 or more applicants.
"If you had a family of six, you'd have mom, dad and each of the kids, assuming they're of legal age, put in for one," said Bruce MacIntyre, director of business advocacy and government affairs for the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
The new beer license granted to Billings, however, is simply an additional license. Whoever is chosen will pay just several hundred dollars in fees, Helfert said.
"It truly is a lottery," she said.
There are 106 all-beverage licenses and 55 beer licenses in Billings, according to the department. Applications for the new licenses are due to the Department of Revenue on Sept. 2.