An unusual decision by NB Liquor to move its outlet in Hartland from a spot near the famed covered bridge to an Irving station at the edge of town is generating controversy in the community and raising questions about whether politics, corporate influence or both played roles in the move. Transferring the outlet triggered objections by the town itself and two of its largest employers. But even with evidence of a botched traffic count contaminating the decision, efforts to have Premier Blaine Higgs intervene and cancel the move fell flat. "The Town of Hartland feels the decision is detrimental to our ongoing efforts to improve and increase our town economy on all fronts," wrote Hartland's chief administrative officer David Hutten in a March letter to Higgs asking him to stop the relocation of the liquor outlet away from the bridge. "It is imperative that we continue to grow our municipal downtown core and not strip it bare of essential and leisure provisions." argued Hutten. It's the first time a successful operator of an NB Liquor agency store has had their contract moved to a competitor since the program began in 1991 but last minute appeals to the province to halt the switch failed and the change went ahead April 1. Liquor store long been downtown Hartland has had a liquor outlet in its downtown core since 1986. It was first installed during the government of former Progressive Conservative Premier Richard Hatfield, Hartland's MLA at the time, as part of the community's reconstruction following a major fire that destroyed several downtown buildings in 1980. The outlet has occupied different locations over 35 years but always within steps of the Hartland Covered Bridge, a recognized national historic site as the longest bridge of its kind in the world. The structure is a tourist magnet in the town and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Freshmart sits across from the entrance to the Hartland Covered Bridge. In February, with the street closed for two days for sewer upgrades, NB Liquor ran a critical traffic count to grade Freshmart's suitability to retain its liquor outlet.(Google Street view) Until this month NB Liquor's outlet had been located across the street from the entrance to the bridge inside a local grocery store called the Hartland Freshmart. Last year Freshmart recorded $1.5 million in alcohol sales, making it the largest NB Liquor outlet in the Carleton County area outside of Woodstock. Freshmart assumed control of the Hartland contract in 2019 after its owner, Peter Cook, bought a nearby convenience store that had owned the licence since the mid 1990s. But Cook is also a prominent Liberal and, coincidentally or not, when Freshmart's liquor contract came up for renewal this year, NB Liquor said it found a better arrangement. In what the Crown corporation insists was an impartial evaluation of bids it received following a request for proposals, the local Hartland Irving station and Valu Foods outlet, about one kilometre upriver from the covered bridge, was selected as the new location for the lucrative outlet. "We wish to advise you that your application for the Agency appointment was unsuccessful," NB Liquor's Bonnie Harnish wrote to the Freshmart on March 17. "Please take assurance in knowing the decision was made following the results of a prescribed and unbiased process." Retailer questions decision's fairness Cook, who ran as a Liberal in the 2010 provincial election and is related by marriage to former Liberal MLAs Fred and Andrew Harvey, does not accept he was dealt with fairly. On March 26, he filed an application with the Court of Queen's Bench in Fredericton to review the decision, alleging that irregularities in how bids were scored unfairly steered the contract to the local Irving station. "Favouring business because they are associated with Irving is improper," Cook said in a sworn affidavit filed with his court application. Cook is suspicious because the final decision on moving the Hartland location was made by NB Liquor's board of directors, which is chaired by John Correia. Correia is a former head fundraiser for the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party and, like Higgs, a former employee of Irving Oil. John Correia was appointed chair of NB Liquor by the Blaine Higgs government. He was an early backer of Higgs's leadership bid and is a former head of the PC Party's fundraising team. Correia spent much of his working career with Irving Oil and Irving-owned Maritime Tire and is now vice-president of Coast Tire.(Coast Tire) In his affidavit, Cook claims the scoring of proposed outlet locations was "politically motivated" and ultimately unfair to his bid because of his own party activity and a favouritism NB Liquor has for outlets branded as Irving stations. "There appears to be an ongoing trend such that [NB Liquor] is awarding more and more agency store contracts to retailers who are working with Irving and who purchase and sell Irving gasoline," Cook said in his affidavit in an apparent reference to the Irving station in Plaster Rock winning an outlet last year. NB Liquor denies that accusation. In an email, spokesperson Thomas Tremblay said the Hartland contract was awarded in a standard way following an "unbiased" 100-point evaluation NB Liquor conducts every time it decides where to place an outlet among competing bidders. The scoring system gives points based on a variety of easily measured factors, including shelf and floor space and cooler size available for selling alcohol (20 points) hours of operation (10 points), and available parking (four points). Credit is also given if the location sells lottery tickets (one point), coffee (one point) or fast food (one point). The scorecard does favour bids connected to oil companies, but not specifically Irving. It awards two points if gasoline is sold onsite, which can be significant in a close contest. A flawed traffic count? However, the single most important element, worth 30 points, is a traffic count conducted at each location, which appeared to be mishandled by NB Liquor in a way that undermined Freshmart's bid. Cook claims that intentionally or by accident the count was done over five days in February exactly as the town dug up the road in front of his store to upgrade local sewer lines, guaranteeing a poor result for his store. Peter Cook (holding scissors) is involved in several New Brunswick businesses. He is suing NB Liquor for the way it handled his bid to retain the liquor outlet at his grocery store in downtown Hartland.(Facebook) "The traffic counter was placed on a road that was closed for construction to all vehicles save for transport trucks for two days out of four and a half or five days [NB Liquor] ran the traffic count study," Cook said in his affadavit. "Vehicles were redirected in such a way that they did not pass through the traffic counter." Hutten, the town administrator, confirmed that account. "The municipality wasn't informed this counting would be happening, so without being aware of that we had that road closed down for two days of the actual car-counting process," said Hutten. "It was closed for a day and overnight and most of the second day." Town of Hartland administrator David Hutten wrote a letter to Premier Blaine Higgs on behalf of the community, calling the decision to move the local liquor outlet away from the downtown 'detrimental' and asking for it to be reversed.(LinkedIn) Cook said he called NB Liquor to alert them to the problem but was told he could not make contact during the evaluation process. He said NB Liquor did not include alternative downtown routes to his store, on Orser, Brighton and Queen streets, in its traffic count. "If we lost fair and square then that's what it would be," Cook said in an interview. "But it's too obvious [we didn't]. It's ridiculous." NB Liquor mum on traffic count results Tom Tremblay said NB Liquor chair Correia was not available to be interviewed about what happened in Hartland, but according to the corporation's scoring system, every vehicle missed in its traffic survey matters. A bidder with 25 per cent more cars recorded in the survey than a competitor receives six more points in the evaluation. A traffic count that is twice as high as a competitor is worth a 15-point advantage. NB Liquor will not disclose what its traffic count in Hartland was or how many points each bidder received, only that on the final scorecard, the Irving location came out ahead. "Your submission met the mandatory requirements," Bonnie Harnish wrote in her letter to the Freshmart. "However, the total score did not yield the highest score." Tremblay acknowledged what happened in Hartland is unusual. Since agency outlets were first introduced by NB Liquor in 1991, dozens of existing operators in good standing have won hundreds of renewals. Not a single one has lost its contract in a request-for-proposals procedure other than the Hartland Freshmart. "Any examples of a change as you describe have typically been related to a business closure or other specific cause," wrote Tremblay. "We don't have an example of a change of award based solely on scoring in our current records." Others worry about impact on downtown Cook is fighting NB Liquor's decision but he's not the only one in Hartland upset by what happened. Kevin Chase with Day & Ross and Ben Craig of Craig Manufacturing, two of Hartland's largest employers, both wrote to the province to object to the decision, as did David Hutten on behalf of the town. "I am sure it seems like a small thing just moving the store a few clicks down the road, but I really believe this decision will have big repercussions on all of us in Hartland," Craig wrote in his letter to local PC MLA Bill Hogan. "We truly believe that towns without a downtown are less attractive places to live. We currently have dozens of open jobs we can't fill, as attracting talent to work in and live in Hartland is already a real challenge." In reply, Hogan sounded sympathetic but said there was nothing he could do. "I have fully investigated this decision and have had several discussions with the Chair of NB Liquor, unfortunately the process that they have in place was followed and a decision was rendered. I have exhausted all the avenues available to me." Chase, who is chief financial officer at Day & Ross, made his appeal directly to Higgs without success. "Attracting talent to our area is sometimes difficult, and one of the things we have found is is that employees want to work where it is convenient for them to have access to goods and services," wrote Chase. "We ask that you review and reverse this decision and leave the agency liquor outlet within the Hartland downtown core."