Friday, September 18, 2015

TOP STORY>> Liquor drive to get reboot

Leader staff writer

The Downtown Jacksonville Business Association is interested in taking over the wet-dry petition drive, if the chamber of commerce doesn’t mind.

The new group, about 14 people, met at The Game Store at 915 W. Main St. on Monday for a third brainstorming session on how to revitalize Main Street.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said at the meeting, “I think it comes to the fact that the wet-dry issue has to be dealt with (to) remove some obstacles…Make sure the chamber’s not got that other company doing this. Supposedly, somebody was going to do this. I don’t want us butting heads.”

Brian Blevins, owner of The Game Store in the old Hastings building, responded, “Let us know what to do and let’s do it…I’m for running with the wet-dry issue.”

The chamber has been leading the charge for years to put to a vote whether the city goes wet, allowing alcohol sales.

The latest is that a new law lowers the threshold of required signatures from 38 percent to 15 percent. The trade off is that voters would be asked to allow only on-premise sales at restaurants and hotels.

The chamber group fell short months ago in gathering signatures from 38 percent of the voters, which would have been about 5,000 John Hancocks. The 15 percent is closer to 2,000.

With the 5,000 signatures, the ballot would have asked for approval of both on- and off-premise sales — at restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, grocery stores and liquor stores.

Roger Sundermeier, the chamber board’s president and a member of the new business association, said either the 15 percent or 38 percent could be pursued. The mayor asked that he find out at a chamber board meeting later in the week where it was on its wet-dry efforts.

It’s also important to note that, although the law doesn’t specifically prohibit liquor stores, a vote to go wet would not add any because Pulaski County already has the one per 5,000 residents permitted by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

The reason the area is dry is because voters living in Gray Township, which no longer exists, elected to outlaw alcohol sales in the 1950s. But state law now allows residents of defunct townships to circulate petitions and then hold a local-option election.

The former Gray Township contains 90 percent of Jacksonville and half of Sherwood, which also launched a wet-dry campaign that hasn’t obtained enough signatures yet. Only those who live in what used to be the township can sign petitions and vote.

In other business, Sundermeier, who is also over marketing for First Arkansas Bank and Trust, led the Downtown Jacksonville Business Association through the creation of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) marketing analysis.

He said the new independent school district is all four and Little Rock Air Force Base is a strength the city has.

Jacksonville’s weaknesses include apathetic residents and being land-locked by old buildings and having little property on which to grow and expand, Sundermeier explained.

He also said LRAFB is a threat because it could be closed.

Alderman Kenny Elliott added that one of the weaknesses is having a lot of people who rent homes in the city and owners who don’t take care of those properties.

The group agreed that downtown needs some kind of entertainment to draw people there in the evenings and on the weekends.

Another conclusion reached is that Jacksonville should cater to airmen and get them involved in plans for its future. Sundermeier said, “There is nothing wrong with being a military town. It’s a beautiful thing. Why not embrace that? Why not build a brand around that?”

Patrick Thomas of Arkansas Outdoor Power Equipment, the only one in the room who had spent time in the military, explained that bases are all-inclusive and airmen must be convinced by someone to venture downtown. He said, “A good way of putting it is ‘whatever happened to the good ole welcome wagon?’”

The mayor added during the discussion that he had recently realized people in their 60s and 70s own most of the property in the city. He said, while they’ve gotten Jacksonville to where it is, it’s time for the next generation to move forward.

Other members of the group pointed out that older individuals don’t typically have an interest in investing in the next 30 years, are resistant to change and want things to be as they used to be. Several agreed that Jacksonville couldn’t be what it used to be because the world is so different now.

The popularity of Internet sales was also chatted about at the meeting. The mayor said he hopes legislation requiring online purchases to be taxed locally is successful. Fletcher said that would help level the playing field for brick-and-mortar stores.

Some of his other ideas where setting up Christmas displays along Main Street to mimic Sherwood’s popular Enchanted Forest Trail of Lights attraction and building the new high school next to the university center on Vandenberg Boulevard near LRAFB to show people on the freeway an education complex the city could be proud of.

Sundermeier said during the back-and-forth that the Advertising and Promotions Commission and the city in general needed to re-focus on internal marketing instead of putting ads in magazines designed to draw people from outside the city.

He pointed out that a lot of residents don’t know what’s going on.

Keith Weber said churches in the area needed to host events, like dances, on the weekends. But many in the group shot that down as not viable, arguing that churches wouldn’t join together because they compete for members or are too busy, it’s difficult for those events to draw non-members and there is only one large church downtown with a facility that would lend itself to such things.

The association’s next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28, at The Game Store.

Photographer Joel Levins, Double R Florist and Oliver’s Antiques are also members of the new group and took part in the Sept. 14 brainstorming session.