Tuesday, June 06, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Restaurants will benefit

Residents of dry areas in Jacksonville and Sherwood, including Gravel Ridge, will vote this fall to allow restaurants to sell alcohol by the drink — beer, wine and mixed drinks.

The election date will be set sometime after Aug. 1. Only people who live in Gray Township will be eligible to vote. There will be five results as the township has five precincts. Each area will decide for itself.

Gray Township is the reason why most of Jacksonville is off limits to most liquor sales. The so-called defunct township, whose boundary is difficult to identify, still carries legal weight in one regard: Its liquor prohibitions, some from more than 50 years ago, still stand.

Big-name restaurants, and even smaller independent ones, are required to get “private-club licenses” to sell drinks by the glass. Such permits are limited, hard to get and expensive. That’s how Chili’s in Jacksonville has operated for years. It’s a public place by any ordinary sense.

The upcoming election will, it is hoped, make it easier for restaurants to open in these dry areas. By voting yes, these communities stand to produce millions in tax revenue for their towns, hundreds of jobs and improve the quality of life.

Liquor stores and bars won’t be opening up if voters approve the measure because the law will require establishments to generate no less than 70 percent of their revenues from food sales.

It also won’t allow grocery or convenience stores to sell wine and beer. This vote is strictly about on-premise consumption for places that will sell more food than alcohol.

The legislature, thanks to state Rep. Bob Johnson of Jacksonville and state Sen. Jane English of North Little Rock, recently passed a new law to let cities with defunct townships to forgo the collection of signatures to get a liquor initiative on the ballot. That made it much easier to usher in reform.

Local liquor restrictions have made it difficult for restaurant operators to know exactly where the dry areas are. Most big chains probably just avoid Jacksonville and Sherwood to pursue other locations. There are plenty of places to open Red Lobsters after all.

The Gray Township border extends east to the Lonoke County line. Its western edge runs from West Maryland Avenue up Batesville Pike near the Watson Road area. From there, the northern perimeter is a straight line north of Bridge Creek Road and Macon and back east to the Lonoke County line.

The election is most likely to benefit cities, not the undeveloped areas of the township.

Hwy. 107 between Brockington Road and Jacksonville Cutoff could see development, as has long been hoped, if this vote succeeds.

That area has a few shopping-center developments that have stalled, and this may help to remedy that.

Jacksonville hopes to attract businesses with this effort, too. City leaders hope to see a restaurant row that rivals North Little Rock’s on Warden Road, which is enjoyed by lots of residents from Jacksonville, Cabot and the air base.

In five years, when the Hwy. 67/167 widening is completed, Jacksonville could look much more attractive to major restaurants.

This vote is about attracting businesses and, like the cities’ efforts to improve their schools, it is a key component of improving both communities and their competiveness.

Dr. Robert Price is leading the campaign as well as a larger urban-renewal effort in Jacksonville. Sherwood economic developer Donnie Crain is leading the charge there.

Price told the Jacksonville City Council recently, “I can tell you it is not establishing liquor stores. It applies to restaurants where 70 percent of their sales come from food sales. They will be able to sell beer, wine and mixed drinks. We’ve got to make that clear in the campaign.”

Price said, “This is our No. 1 objective out of 13 to bring economic development to the city.”

The next 12 principles of Jacksonville’s renewal plan are increase the design and number of public gathering places; develop and endorse economic and social programs to improve the quality of Jacksonville downtown development; improve citywide high-speed internet; improve, increase the number of downtown parks, green spaces, walking and bike paths; redesign street traffic flow, parking and streetscape; work with the Jacksonville Historical District to improve use of unattractive and under-used properties; redesign public utilities to be more attractive and underground; generate more available capital to help implement planned improvements; recruit new and specialized business to Jacksonville downtown; collaborate with the new Jacksonville school district to improve graduation rates and expand post-secondary education; collaborate with the Jacksonville chamber on implementing the master plan, and develop a mixed-use approach to housing.

Let’s hope liquor by the drink passes, and may the next 12 also come to fruition.