Tuesday, March 10, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Petitioners get big break

Although the Jacksonville and Sherwood wet-dry campaigns did not get enough signatures to get their initiative on the ballot this spring, they got a boost last week in the legislature, which passed a bill that requires signatures from far fewer registered voters to put the measure before voters.

The bill will allow alcohol sales for just on-premise consumption — at restaurants and hotels — but not for off-premise consumption, such as at convenience, grocery or liquor stores.

Jacksonville now needs only 1,977 names — just 15 percent from eligible voters. The new 15 percent requirement is 3,031 less than the 5,008 required before, which will be a much easier requirement to meet. Sherwood needs 1,876 signatures — 2,876 less than the 4,752 it had needed. Sherwood had collected 1,500 signatures, but none were turned in for verification.

If enough names are collected to set local-option elections and voters choose to go wet — allowing alcohol sales — rather than stay dry, only restaurants and hotels inside city limits will be affected. But they will sprout up soon enough.

Senate Bill 373 amended a state law passed in 2013 that allows residents of defunct voting districts, such as the local Gray Township, to circulate petitions. The petition drives in Jacksonville and Sherwood have been ongoing for nearly two years.

The township, which contains 90 percent of Jacksonville and the half of Sherwood north of Maryland Avenue, voted in the 1950s to be dry.

As reporter Sarah Campbell pointed out last weekend, both campaigns would have to start from scratch on gathering names. This would be the third try for Jacksonville, where petitioners were trying to turn in 1,415 signatures last Thursday to meet the 38 percent requirement and had hoped for a special election this spring. It shouldn’t be hard to meet the lower 15 percent requirement in the next round.

Jacksonville turned in more than 5,000 signatures in late January, but only 3,593 of those were verified in early February. Volunteers did a great job trying to meet the deadline, but, with bad weather, the odds were against them. The next time they hit the streets, it will be much easier for canvassers to get 2,000 qualified signatures than the previously sky-high requirement.

Sherwood economic developer Barry Sellers sees the new campaign as a compromise between liquor sales in restaurants and grocery stores or just restaurants serving drinks. “We’re kind of meeting halfway. I’m excited about it,” he told The Leader.

Once voters approve the latest initiative, Sellers can tell restaurant owners that have expressed interest in opening locations in the northern half of the city and elsewhere that they could serve alcoholic beverages without obtaining private club licenses through the state Alcohol Beverage Control Division.

Right now, restaurants that want to sell alcohol by the drink in dry areas pay thousands in annual fees for the licenses and can’t purchase alcohol at reduced wholesale prices. A vote to go wet would eliminate both issues for them. Sherwood and Jacksonville are hoping to establish restaurant rows like other area cities, mainly North Little Rock.

Both cities have touted a University of Arkansas at Little Rock study that found going wet could add $10 million to Sherwood’s economy and $600,000 to Jacksonville’s economy. But those estimates will change now that convenience and grocery stores are off the table. Liquor stores were never on the table because the ABC allows one liquor store per 5,000 people and Pulaski County is maxed out on permits.

Voters should approve this compromise in favor of economic development. Look for more canvassers near you soon.