Wednesday, June 26, 2013

TOP STORY >> Signatures needed to bring in alcohol

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville and Sherwood could become “wet” as early as this fall, which would allow restaurants to serve alcohol without having to go through the rigors of applying for a private club license.

The holdup will be collecting signatures on a petition to set a special election for residents in Gray Township, which encompasses a large portion of both cities.

The difficulty will not be in collecting signatures, but in the number required by a new state law. Most special elections need only 15 percent of the voters from the last election, but to take an area from dry to wet requires a petition with 38 percent of the registered voters.

The proposed elections would allow restaurants to sell alcohol, but would not allow any liquor stores into the newly created wet areas.

These were just some of the facts pointed out at meetings Monday and Tuesday evenings in Sherwood and Jacksonville sponsored by their chambers of commerce.

Kelly Coughlin, Sherwood’s economic development director, and Amy Mattison, chief executive officer for the Jacksonville chamber, led the meeting, informing about three dozen city leaders and residents. Mattison had another meeting Tuesday evening at the Jacksonville Community Center, where some residents voiced concerns. Mattison said the city is losing about $600,000 a year in liquor sales.

Coughlin has set Aug. 15 as the date to turn in the required Sherwood signatures to have an early September vote. Mattison hasn’t set a projected date, saying that Jacksonville is also looking to set a vote for a separate school district.

“We don’t want to entangle the two,” she said.

About 90 percent of what is now Jacksonville became dry in December 1954, while more than half of Sherwood became dry in 1956, meaning no liquor stores and no restaurants or other venues could sell alcohol.

Sherwood Alderman Ken Keplinger, attending Monday’s meeting, said one of the reasons residents in Gray Township (Jacksonville) voted themselves dry was because of the plans for the new air base. “They didn’t want airmen going into town and getting drunk,” he said.

What is not clear is how the township expanded into Sherwood and had another vote in 1956 to make that area dry also.

Both Coughlin and Mattison said the records are very convoluted, but to make sure both cities are in the right when the vote occurs, they have divided the old Gray Township into two sections based upon the 1954 and 1956 elections. Some of Sherwood is in the 1954 section and some of Jacksonville is in the 1956 section.

For ease of understanding, Coughlin called the 1956 section “Sherwood” and the 1954 section Jacksonville. Coughlin is running point to gather signatures in the Sherwood section and Mattison is heading the drive for the Jacksonville section. Both drives will need about 4,400 signatures from residents within the affected areas in order to have a vote on the issue.

So why is this vote even needed since Gray Township doesn’t even exist anymore? That political entity may be gone, but the laws voted on remain in effect.
Mattison said the chambers are using Arkadelphia as an example of how to go from dry to wet.

Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), who attended both meetings, and Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), who was at Tuesday’s meeting, pushed a bill through the 2013 legislative session giving residents in defunct townships a chance to decide on the issue of being wet or dry—allowing liquor or not.

English said the bill came at the urging of North Little Rock, Sherwood and Jacksonville chambers of commerce.

The bill covers four areas in Pulaski County, including Gray Township. According to Coughlin, all of Arkansas was wet once prohibition ended, but in 1935 the state legislature voted in a process allowing individual areas to become dry.

“It’s much easier to go from wet to dry, then dry to wet,” Coughlin told the sparse crowd.
In the 1950’s, Pulaski County was made up of 16 townships or separate sections. Four of those — Gray, Hill, Bayou Meto and Union — designated themselves dry.

But most of the townships are no longer recognized as political entities by the county or state, so township residents have no way to reverse earlier decisions.

The boundaries of Gray Township were readjusted in February 1956 due to some annexations made at the time by Jacksonville. Residents in the newly aligned township voted on Nov. 6, 1956 to go dry by a vote of 421 against alcohol and 219 for alcohol.

In Sherwood, Gray Township is pretty much everything north of the east-and-west-running Maryland Avenue, with the Bayou Meto forming the eastern boundary, Maryland Avenue on the south, Batesville Pike on the west and the county line to the north.

In Jacksonville, the dry area encompasses some of the most desirable land that national restaurant chains are looking at, according to Mayor Gary Fletcher. It is roughly bordered by Maddox Road to the north, the county line to the east, the Bayou Meto to the west and Wooten Road to the south.

Fletcher has said that going wet would allow Jacksonville to benefit from the economic impact of more family restaurants like Chili’s, which consistently brings in around $4 million a year in sales.

“With the air base here and its $780 million impact, Jacksonville ought to be home to every name-brand restaurant around. But we are not because of the alcohol restrictions,” the mayor said.

Coughlin said Sherwood is losing out on about $10 million a year in local sales because of the dry section in the city. She called the move to get the signatures for the elections an economic one.

“It’s the only way we are going to get nicer, higher end restaurants,” she said, adding that restaurants do bring in jobs. She said more than 200 jobs were added to the local economy when Wild Buffalo Wings opened last year in Sherwood.

Mattison also sees it as a vote for safety. “We don’t want military members or anyone having to drive to drink and then drive back.”