Friday, November 03, 2017

TOP STORY >> Drink-by-the-glass election Nov. 14

Leader editor

A vote to allow restaurants to sell alcohol by the glass in Gray Township, a dry area that banned alcohol sales in most of Jacksonville and much of Sherwood more than 50 years ago, will be held Tuesday, Nov. 14. Early voting opens Tuesday.

Supporters say it could boost the economic prospects in both cities by making it easier for restaurants to open shop, create hundreds of jobs and help spur development.

The Jacksonville City Council passed a resolution on Thursday supporting the election and asked voters to vote yes for the sake of economic development.

If approved, there will still not be any liquor stores in town or bars in Jacksonville. Even gas stations and grocery stores will still be banned from selling alcohol if they’re already in a dry area. The vote is only for restaurants to sell beer, wine and mixed drinks.

Only residents who live in Gray Township are eligible to vote in the two cities.

Early voting ballots can be cast from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. weekdays, Tuesday through Thursday at the Jacksonville Community Center, 5 Municipal Drive in Jacksonville, and at the Jack Evans Senior Citizens Center, 2301 Thornhill Drive in Sherwood.

Early voting will also be held at the Pulaski County Regional Building at 501 W. Markham St. in Little Rock from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and on Monday, Nov. 13.

It’s safe to assume, if you live in Jacksonville, that you are eligible to vote. Only small sections of Jacksonville are not in the Gray Township.

In Sherwood, the township’s boundary begins at Maryland Avenue on Hwy. 107 and near Austin Bay Court off Brockington Road. So residents living north of those streets toward Gravel Ridge and Jacksonville and up to the back gate of the air base can vote.

Some of the Sherwood neighborhoods eligible to vote include Millers Crossing, Austin Gardens, Austin Lakes on the Bay, Gap Creek and Indianhead.

Dr. Robert Price has been leading the effort to allow restaurants to sell alcohol. He heads up the Vote for Progress Now committees in Jacksonville and Sherwood. Other Jacksonville members are state Rep. Bob Johnson, who helped pass legislation to pave the way for the vote, Karen Abrahamson, Mike Wilson, Thad Gray, Mindy Strand and Alderman Les Collins.

The combined Jacksonville-Sherwood committee Paul Wilson, who is co-chair with Price; Sherwood chamber president Brooks McRae; Sherwood chamber director Marcia Cook; Sherwood City Attorney Steve Cobb; Sherwood Alderman Marina Brooks, as well as Robin Benetz, Jacksonville Alderman LaConda Watson, Les Collins, Mike Wilson, Mindy Strand and Karen Abrahamson.

Each precinct will decide for itself whether to let restaurants sell drinks. That means one part of town may permit liquor sales in restaurants while another part of town continues the prohibition.

Restaurants that want to open in downtown Jack-sonville, or almost every other part of the city, now have to obtain an expensive and complicated private-club license.

Cobb said, “Sherwood and Jacksonville are working together, even though the votes are separate. We could both win, both lose or one of us win and the other lose.”

“The committee has been meeting all fall, and a third mailer just went out Thursday,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the committee’s goal has been to educate voters on what the proposal is and what it isn’t.

“It’s about restaurants serving alcohol. It is not about liquor stores or convenience stores,” he said.

He said all of that was part of Gray Township and in 1953 it voted itself dry. But townships are now defunct, having been replaced by precincts.

Vote for Progress Now has also hired a consulting firm, the Markham Group of Little Rock, to help guide them through the campaign process.

Price said, “We are attempting to raise $22,500 to pay for our share of the campaign cost. To date, we have raised $18,500 and have to raise the remainder over the next few weeks. The county pays for the election but we, the citizens, have to pay for the campaign. The city of Jacksonville is not paying for any of the costs for the election or the election campaign.”

But the signs, polling and consultant costs money. Price is asking people to make donations by calling him at 501-681-2288.

To help get out the vote, Price said the group has been training volunteers, putting up signs, conducting polls, making calls, knocking on doors, holding fundraisers and giving presentations about the election.

Price said people are supportive of the change in alcohol rules.

“I have talked to only two people in the last several months that are opposed to local option. I have contacted many people in the process of the campaign and have not encountered any organized opposition. The citizens of Jacksonville see this as an important event in the city to help with our economic growth and improve the lives of all of us,” Price said.

Many hope it will bring economic growth, but Price is measured in his outlook. He also leads an initiative to revitalize downtown Jacksonville.

“It is very important to understand that economic growth is not assured in any community. Growth must be encouraged, promoted and planned by a community. There is never any guarantee that a community will grow and prosper. We have to be proactive if we’re going to have the kind of community that has a growing economy, good schools and a prosperous quality of life,” he said.

“This is what we are trying to do with our Downtown Planning and Development Program. Our drink-by-the-glass effort is an important objective in this plan,” he said.

Price said the plan to boost economic activity downtown has 13 criteria, and topping the list was lifting the ban on restaurants selling alcohol, which has the potential to bring in other types of businesses.

“Our planning group for our downtown plan identified the drink-by-the-glass as the No. 1 objective for this plan. This effort, as it has in other communities, will benefit the whole of Jacksonville. In other cities, drink by the glass has brought other businesses into the communities in addition to restaurants. All businesses have prospered, housing values have increased as well as improved housing,” he said.

Price said all that adds up to population growth and a stronger local economy.

“In these cities (where restaurants can sell alcohol), population has increased which has driven the need for additional business. As a result, sales tax has increased, which has helped with city government expenses. Cities have been able to provide greater safety measures for citizens by updating old equipment such as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars,” he said.

This vote ties in to other economic-development initiatives Jacksonville is pursuing, such as building $123 million in new schools and the $100 million revamp of Hwy. 67/167.

“When all of these economic factors are combined with improved roads and highways such as our new interstate highway, new school system and new industry, we are looking at a new period in Jacksonville of growth and prosperity. We have to continue taking innovative and enthusiastic approaches to city planning and development,” Price said.

Price has lived in Jack-sonville for 33 years. He has a Ph.D. in psychology and worked for 37 years at UAMS, retiring two years ago, where he is still professor emeritus.

He also retired in July from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where he was a clinical professor conducting research from Jacksonville. He also previously worked for Michigan State University.

He and his wife, Ginger, have three children and five grandchildren.

During the Jacksonville City Council meeting Thursday, Alderman Les Collins said, “This is not a vote on bars or additional liquor stores. We are talking about restaurants being able to serve liquor without having to get a private club license.”

Aldermen and the mayor have long backed the effort to extend liquor sales to restaurants as a way to attract businesses and boost sales-tax revenues.

Leader staff writers Rick Kron and Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.