Friday, November 17, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Restaurants going wet

Jacksonville and Sherwood voters on Tuesday made it a lot easier for restaurants to boost revenues and for cities to attract national chains.

Jacksonville voted 993-179 in favor of allowing restaurants to serve alcohol in the dry Gray Township, a defunct jurisdiction that banned alcohol sales 60 years ago. Sherwood was not far behind, voting 645-151 in favor. The measure failed by one vote in rural north Pulaski County.

Restaurants could start applying for liquor licenses next month. This won’t lead to any liquor stores or bars. But maybe the two communities will be more attractive to restaurants looking to grow here.

No good maps exist of Gray Township’s boundaries, and many people can go their whole lives without ever hearing the township’s name. The township includes all of Jacksonville and about half of Sherwood. Residents there voted to ban all liquor sales in 1954 and 1956 respectively, and the consequences have been mostly Jacksonville’s loss because most of Sherwood was already wet.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and Sherwood Mayor Virginia Young, along with their chambers of commerce and a group of dedicated volunteers, worked hard to pass the liquor proposal. Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville), who sponsored legislation that allowed this week’s historic vote, said the referendum will boost the economies both of Sherwood and Jacksonville.

Fletcher said the vote “was more than an alcohol issue. The election showed people want to move Jacksonville forward. Now we can move forward with a level playing field.”

North Little Rock has seen dozens of the big-name chain restaurants open on Warden Road that attract diners from Jacksonville, which has lost out on millions of tax dollars and hundreds of restaurant jobs.

Jacksonville and Sherwood hope to win some national steak houses and pizza parlors. Gravel Ridge is ripe for development, and at least one shopping center is already underway there and restaurants there can add liquor to their menus now.

It’s hoped the widening and reconfiguration of Hwy. 67/167 – a $200 million project – will lead to urban renewal and more shopping centers that serve food and alcohol.

For inspiration look at Markham Street in Little Rock between University Avenue and Van Buren Street near Fair Park Boulevard.

Opposite the UAMS campus, the area has seen numerous buildings bulldozed and replaced with attractive modern ones.

There’s lots of potential for many sites along the freeway, which will have six lanes from Jacksonville to Cabot. There are some vacant lots, but a sleepy office space or retail store would make excellent locations for redevelopment. When the access roads are made one-way, sites that are overlooked today could become prime real estate.

Both cities’ proximity to Little Rock Air Force Base, the state’s fifth-largest employer, might entice some big chains. Chili’s Bar and Grill has done well in Jacksonville, where much of its revenues come from liquor sales. It operates using a private-club license, a loophole that’s expensive and inconvenient. Private-club permit holders can’t advertise the alcoholic beverages they sell and buy their inventory from liquor stores not from wholesalers.

Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and others sell drinks with a private-club license. They can soon apply for liquor licenses like other restaurants in Pulaski County, according to Dr. Robert Price, who helped organize the campaign. He’s also leading a downtown-revitalization effort.

Already established restaurants in the area stand to gain. We’ll be watching to see if places like Roma Italian Restaurant, New China Restaurant, Thai Taste, the Hook, Bar-B-Que Shack and Barnhill’s Steaks and Buffet will apply for liquor licenses. They are free to choose, and the stage has been set to give everyone more choice and opportunity.

It seems North Little Rock has every restaurant brand out there, but Jacksonville and Sherwood economic developers should pursue Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, O’Charley’s Restaurant and Bar, Yard House, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bahama Breeze Island Grille, Maggiano’s Little Italy, the Cheesecake Factory and others.

And don’t rule out luring away some restaurants from North Little Rock. Texas Roadhouse, which has hundreds of locations across the country and was named the best restaurant chain by Business Insider, is hard to get to behind the Other Center in North Little Rock.

Thanks to everyone, especially the many volunteers who helped set the stage – or should we say table – to improve the quality of life and create more opportunities for the community.