Tuesday, August 06, 2013

TOP STORY >> Liquor sides speak out

Leader staff writer

“I was born here 33 years ago, and the city hasn’t changed,” lamented Tasha Smith. “We are stagnant. People, you have got to stop voting against everything and vote for change.”

Smith was one of about a dozen Jacksonville residents who spoke positively for the wet/dry issue, compared to two who spoke against the idea of bringing more alcohol into the city at Tuesday’s town hall meeting.

At issue is the effort to get the 4,400 signature required to allow a vote on turning the city completely wet, which would allow restaurants to sell alcohol and some stores to sell beer and wine.

No additional liquor stores will be allowed under the new law to be decided by voters.

Mayor Gary Fletcher and supporters for turning Jacksonville wet called for the special town hall meeting at the city’s community center.

About 6,500 residents were notified about the meeting through the city’s CodeRed telephone system, and about 175 showed up for the meeting that started to dwindle down after 90 minutes.

The mayor covered a wide range of subjects, and when he came to the wet/dry issue, he gave four reasons the vote was needed, all centering on expanding the city’s tax base to keep up its services.

First, he said, the 2010 census showed a 1,500 dip in the city’s population.

“Actually the city went up some, but the population on the base dropped because of housing issues. That drop in population cost us a million dollars in federal funding,” the mayor said, adding that the city wouldn’t recover from that until the next census.

The mayor also blamed the lack of taxing Internet sales as hurting the city, as well as the sale of lottery tickets, which are untaxed.

“Can you guess how much money is spent in the 72076 zip code on lottery tickets in a year? It’s $9.6 million — money not being spent on food, clothes or other taxable items.,” he said.

Fletcher also said Jackson-ville was facing an uneven playing field. “Everyone knows we worked real hard to bring Buffalo Wild Wings to Jacksonville. They were even looking at specific lots, but then saw all the hoops the company would have to jump through because of the dry restrictions and moved down a few miles to Sherwood.”

In a moment of exasperation, Fletcher said he was very fond of Sherwood’s Mayor Virginia Hillman, “but I want to recapture our people. I’m tired of supporting Sherwood.”

The mayor made it clear that the wet/dry issue was not a spiritual issue, but an economic one.

“I’m a born-again Christian, and we are saved by grace, not rules,” he said to loud applause. “I would not jeopardize my soul if I did think I was right. Not one more person is going to start drinking because we are a wet city.”

But D’Ann Hill, wearing a “Don’t sign the petition” tag, disagreed.

“Love of money is the root of all evil. There is no amount of money that can pay for even one alcohol death,” she said, adding that people never see the evils of alcohol on billboards or ads. She said restaurants and other alcohol establishments would be built on the backs “of those being killed by alcohol.”

Another woman, Michelle Poole, also against the idea, asked who in the crowd would allow a business on their corner or neighborhood that sold alcohol. A large number of hands instantly shot up.

Jim Durham, the director of administration, explained that, even though convenience and large stores like Walmart could sell beer and wine under the law, it would not be automatic.

“First they would have to seek approval from the Alcohol Beverage Control board, then through the city’s board of adjustments, then the planning commission and the city council, and even if everyone approved it, the mayor could still veto it. It won’t be an easy process, and your elected officials will take it very serious.”

Ivory Tillman, a prominent member of the local NAACP, said he supported the issue. “We are losing a lot of tax dollars. They are going outside the city limits. It would behoove us as citizens to allow alcohol to be sold here. It’s about tax dollars, not legislating morality,” he said.

He mentioned growing up in Texarkana, where one side was wet and the other side was dry. “Just because they lived on the dry side didn’t make them bigger Christians then us on the other side,” Tillman said.

Tasha Smith chimed in with a passionate plea: “We have to learn to listen and understand change. We need to give our city a chance. You’ve got to care.”

Someone in the audience hollered that the 33-year-old should run for office. “Maybe next year,” she quipped.

Sami Richter said Jackson-ville needed to thrive again.

“We are trying to turn our town into an upscale community, not let it become an inner-city slum. You don’t see Sherwood turning into a slum. We are intelligent enough to control and police ourselves. Let’s do something more than just grow old here,” she said.

The city needs about 4,400 signatures from residents inside Gray Township, which encompasses about 90 percent of Jacksonville, to get the issue on the ballot.

A recent University of Arkansas study shows Jacksonville losing at least $600,000 annually because so much of the town is dry.

The few restaurants in the city that are allowed to sell liquor, like Cancun and Chili’s, are doing well. The Jacksonville Chili’s rates among the most profitable in the state, bringing in receipts of $3 to $4 million a month.

In July, the city council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the wet vote.

The resolution supports the efforts of the city, the chamber and volunteers to get enough signatures to have a vote on repealing the dry designation of Gray Township.

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

“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,” Fletcher said.

Most of what is now Jacksonville became dry in December 1954, while more than half of Sherwood became dry in 1956.

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.

So state Sen. Jane English (R- North Little Rock) and Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) 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.

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

These Jacksonville businesses have petitions that residents can sign: The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Unique Furniture, First Arkansas Bank and Trust’s main branch, America’s Best Value Inn and Suites, Victory Lane convenience store, Double R Florist, Merle Norman, the Military Museum, Main Gate Storage, Crafton’s Furniture, Mighty Vikings Football and city hall.

They are also at Saving Jacksonville Headquarters (Crestview Plaza), Toneyville Gas Station, Stonewall Home Owners Association, Davis-Miller Automotive, Papito’s Mexican restaurant and Branscum Realty.