Friday, June 06, 2014

TOP STORY >> Liquor laws may change in Arkansas

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville and Sherwood may not need their wet-dry petition signatures if a constitutional amendment to make the entire state wet splashes onto the November ballot and passes.

The Jacksonville and Sherwood chambers of commerce support the statewide effort that would expand alcohol sales to every county and negate the need for their own petition for a local-option election. But supporters aren’t counting on the amendment.

Chamber officials from both cities have hired Impact Management Group of Little Rock to spearhead the campaign for the local-option election signatures.

The local-option petition would allow residents of defunct townships in the area to vote on whether half of Sherwood and most of Jacksonville remain dry or go wet — allowing alcohol sales without private-club licenses.

Proponents of the proposed amendment include a Little Rock lawyer, a former Walmart executive and the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants while Walmart, Kum and Go and other retailers are funding the initiative, Arkansas Business reported.

A little more than 78,000 signatures — 15 percent of the state’s registered voters — are needed by July 7. The proposal specifies that the amendment would make only prohibition unlawful. It allows for regulation.

Jacksonville chamber director Amy Mattison said she has heard that signature collectors are focusing on dry counties with large populations like Faulkner rather than wet counties like Pulaski. But, she has seen them in several Walmart stores, Mattison added.

Michael Langley, director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said — if the proposal reaches the ballot and is approved by voters — it would go into effect on July 1, 2015.

If the initiative were successful, that would mean another 220 liquor-store permits and 800 or more permits for off-premise beer sales statewide, Langley explained.
He said the ABC is not taking a position on the ballot proposal but, “If it’s the will of the people, we will do whatever we can to implement the will of the people.”

Sherwood Economic Development Director Barry Sellers said the city is not opposed to the amendment, but they aren’t going to count on it either.

He said Sherwood has gathered about 1,000 of the 4,200 signatures needed for a local-option election.

If voters do choose to repeal the dry status, that could mean full-service restaurants and grocery and convenience stores selling beer, adding $10 million to Sherwood’s economy and $450,000 to Jacksonville’s economy.

About enlisting Impact Management Group in the effort, Sellers noted, “This way we’ll have people on the ground everyday” instead of just volunteers on the weekends.

Signatures are being collected door-to-door and at the Mapco gas station on Hwy. 107.

Jacksonville must gather 4,400 signatures. Proponents have 1,999 so far, chamber director Amy Mattison said.

About the statewide ballot proposal, she added, “I think it’s a great initiative. Either way we’re going to go wet.”

Mattison also said partnering with Sherwood on the affordable contract with Impact Management Group would fill a void left by grassroots volunteers who can’t gather signatures on a full-time basis.

Robert Coon with the firm said he hopes to have the necessary signatures for both cities by early or mid-August so the issue can be voted on during the November election. A special election could be held if that deadline is not met, he noted.

About the statewide ballot proposal, Coon agreed with Sellers and Mattison. “Obviously, if it solves the economic development issues in Jacksonville and Sherwood, that would be great.”

But, he said, “We’re not necessarily putting all our eggs in that basket.”

Coon continued, “Generally speaking, I think things are going well…We’ve got a game plan put together.”

Impact Management Group was hired just a few weeks ago, he said.

Coon explained that, although volunteers have worked hard and the campaign has a social media presence already, the firm wants to increase that presence and canvas neighborhoods in a methodical way.

“Getting in front of that voter is always the challenge,” he added.