Tuesday, July 08, 2014

TOP STORY >> Dry county helps place liquor effort on fall ballot

Leader staff writer

Lonoke County was “great” in helping proponents of expanding alcohol sales statewide turn in 84,969 — more than the required 78,133 — signatures on Monday morning.

That is according to Little Rock attorney David Couch. He is spearheading the effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would make every county in Arkansas wet, allowing alcohol sales. Monday was the deadline to turn in the required signatures.

Couch explained that the proposed amendment also needed the signatures of at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 15 different counties to get on the ballot.

Proponents accomplished that goal, and Lonoke County was one of the 15.

There were 38,620 registered voters there as of July 1, according to the Lonoke County Election Commission, and 5 percent of that would be 1,931.

“People were very receptive (in Lonoke County),” Couch said. There was no bullying or voters being “ugly” about not wanting to sign the petition — problems that have occurred elsewhere, he noted.

Couch added that signatures were also collected in White County.

He said Secretary of State Mark Martin would count all of the signatures and determine how many are valid.

If the number of valid signatures falls below the number required, proponents will be granted another 30 days to fill the gap, Couch explained.

They are continuing to collect signatures in case more are needed, he added.

Couch said Cabot residents could sign the petition at the Kum and Go gas station, which has contributed financially to the statewide campaign.

And Sherwood residents can sign the petition at Mapco gas station, another financial contributor.

Signature collectors are coming in and out of Jacksonville and White County, Couch said.

Proponents have been doing their own validity checks, the attorney continued. He said between 70 and 75 percent of the signatures collected have been valid.

A “yes” vote on the amendment, if it lands on the ballot, could mean 19 liquor stores in White County and 17 in Lonoke County.

According to the 2010 Census population figures for both counties, that is one liquor store per 4,000 residents — the number allowed by the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

Pulaski County is maxed out on permits, so the amendment would not mean more liquor stores there.

But the liquor stores on the outskirts of cities could move closer to more heavily trafficked locales. The amendment doesn’t do away with zoning regulations or city ordinances, Couch said previously.

The statewide effort has focused on three counties — Craighead, home to Jonesboro’s Arkansas State University; Saline County and Faulkner County, home to Conway, “The City of Colleges.”

According to a news release by Our Community, Our Dollars — a committee formed in support of local-option votes in those three counties and financially supported by Walmart and Kum and Go — said a recent University of Arkansas at Little Rock study estimated the economic impact going wet would have on the three counties.

The release states that the study, which is based on 2013 potential sales figures, estimates a wet Craighead County could have seen $24.8 million in retail alcohol sales, a wet Saline County could have seen $34.2 million, and a wet Faulkner County could have seen $28.2 million. Those sales mean millions in sales tax revenue.

According to the release, the study concludes that the overall annual potential economic benefit to the three counties would be about $10.5 million in Craighead County, $12.5 million in Saline and $11.3 million in Faulkner.

The author of the UALR study did not return a call from The Leader requesting estimates for Lonoke and White counties.

But, according the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2010 populations of all five counties in order from largest to smallest are as follows: Faulkner with 113,237; Saline with 107,118; Craighead with 96,443; White with 77,076; and Lonoke with 68,356.

If population is any indication, White County could see about 80 percent of the $10.5 million economic impact expected for Craighead County while Lonoke County could see about 70 percent.

But the UALR study uses several other factors to draw its conclusions, and that estimate could be far from accurate.

ABC Director Michael Langley said previously that, if it passes, the amendment would be effective July 1, 2015. It would bring another 220 liquor store permits and 800 or more permits for off-premise beer sales statewide, he said.

Several officials in The Leader’s coverage area say they oppose the measure, favoring local elections over a statewide election.

The Sherwood and Jacksonville chambers are leading an effort to put to a vote whether defunct townships that contain half of Sherwood and 90 percent of Jacksonville should go wet or stay dry.

The groups, the Jacksonville Wet/Dry Campaign and Keep Dollars in Sherwood, have been working to collect more than 4,000 signatures each — 38 percent of registered voters in each defunct township — to get local-option elections.

Jacksonville has about 60 percent of the 4,400 it needs, according to Robert Coon of Impact Management Group in Little Rock, the firm Sherwood and Jacksonville hired to help collect local-option signatures.

Sherwood has more than 1,000 of the 4,200 it needs, he said. Both have been collecting signatures since last summer.

Going wet could add $10 million to Sherwood’s economy and $600,000 to Jacksonville’s economy, according to another UALR study.

To get on the ballot, the constitutional amendment needs signatures from just 10 percent of registered voters statewide who voted for governor in 2010, Couch pointed out previously.

Of the statewide initiative, Jacksonville chamber executive director Amy Mattison said, “I think it’s great. It’s a great thing.”

Barry Sellers, the Sherwood chamber’s economic-development director, agreed. He said, “It would give us two chances to get it.”

Sellers said he would meet with Impact Management Group about whether the Sherwood petitioners should help with the statewide initiative.

Coon said the local-option signature drive was “going pretty well.”

Of the statewide initiative, he said, “It’s definitely something we’re keeping an eye on.”
Coon said the firm is taking a wait-and-see approach to that and may consider taking a break from the local-option drive if the amendment gets on the ballot.

But whether to take a break would be up to the two campaigns, he noted.

Coon added that it might not make sense to spend money between the amendment getting on the ballot and the vote on it in November because its passage would make a local-option vote in both cities unnecessary.

Of the statewide initiative, Sellers said, “They did a good job.”

Sellers said the Sherwood campaign slowed down because they didn’t want to confuse voters with the two petitions, and the statewide initiative had the hard deadline to meet.

Sellers said he dropped by Mapco while petitioners for the amendment were collecting signatures. One man pointed at him, telling them he had already signed the petition.

Sellers said he had to explain to that man that it was a different petition.