Monday, February 23, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Last chance, sign petition

Kudos and good luck to those collecting signatures on the wet-dry petitions in Jacksonville. Organizers are only 500 signatures short now and “sprinting to the finish line,” Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce board president Roger Sundermeier said Friday. 

He also wanted to publicly thank the business owners who took petitions to their offices and offered places where people could sign.

Sundermeier’s optimism was palpable, and the news that two-thirds of the work is done was quite a turnaround after the effort suffered a blow early this month.

On Feb. 3, the Pulaski County Clerk’s Office notified petitioners that they were still short by 1,415 names and had until March 5 to close the gap.

If that goal isn’t reached, volunteers will have to start all over. They’ve already been at it for years.

Having the required 5,008 signatures from registered voters will lead to local elections that let residents decide if they want restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores to sell alcohol.

Under the plan, restaurants would be allowed to have a full bar without paying thousands in annual fees for private-club licenses, and grocery stores and gas stations would be allowed to sell only beer and wine.

Restaurants like Chili’s, which has a private-club license, are also unable to purchase alcohol at reduced wholesale prices. They pay the same marked-up rates as everyone else, and that must be taking a large cut of potential profits.

The Sherwood chamber, leading the same effort for their portion of the defunct and dry Gray Township, has struggled even more. Canvassers there have collected only about 1,500 out of the 4,752 that are required.

Why is this issue important for both cities?

Jacksonville officials expect an estimated $600,000 in sales tax revenue to pour in when national chains — especially restaurants — have one less excuse not to move here.

Sherwood wants to develop the northern half of the city, which is dry and includes Gravel Ridge. A UALR study that predicted the $600,000 for Jacksonville estimated that Sherwood could see $10 million flowing into the local economy if it became wet.

Skeptics who say drunk driving will increase if liquor laws are changed should understand that in Missouri and Louisiana, where liquor laws are among the loosest in the nation, DWI rates are actually lower than in Arkansas, where only 10 counties are completely wet.

Repealing local alcohol prohibitions has proven difficult given that signatures from 38 percent of registered voters are required while 10 percent is needed for most other ballot initiatives. Sherwood economic developer Barry Sellers is hoping legislators will change the law.

Meanwhile, diners will continue to spend their dollars in wet North Little Rock and elsewhere.

Having the option to order a cocktail or beer with dinner or to buy a six-pack on the way home from a long day at the office doesn’t mean more residents will drink.

And those who are against alcohol consumption for moral reasons can still choose not to drink if the area goes wet. It’s doubtful Chili’s serving booze here made a dent in any strongly-held beliefs. 

What these petitions mean is being able to choose. Those who drink can choose to pour their hard-earned wages back into their community. And they can choose whether they want to continue detouring miles out of the way for what they want just because those who were here in the 1950s turned off the taps.
—Sarah Campbell