Commissioners met Monday with leaders from the town of Sylva to discuss the possibilities of one or more county ABC stores. Specifically, the town and county must decide whether to form a single joint ABC board to oversee all the stores — the town of Sylva’s store as well as any the county opens — rather than each running their own.
The possibility of Jackson County opening a liquor store near Cherokee comes just two months after voters on the reservation rejected the sale of alcoholic beverages there. The Cherokee Reservation is dry, except for inside the casino. A ballot referendum in April to allow alcohol sales — including opening an ABC store — was defeated by a decisive margin of more than 60 percent.
Now Jackson County could park one on the tribe’s doorstep.
If Jackson County opens liquor stores it will need to form an ABC board to oversee operations. Commissioners indicated they’d likely consider merging boards with Sylva.
County commissioner chairman Jack Debnam, however, said there’s no hurry.
“Jackson County has a good deal right now. We have a great deal right now,” he said.
That deal just happens to be the generous arrangement with the town of Sylva to share half its ABC profits with the county.
“The incentive for us to do something is not the greatest in the world unless it’s going to make more money for us,” Debnam said. “The plain fact is we don’t have to do anything. We can leave it all just like it is right now. It seems like we are desperate to hammer out an agreement, and I don’t feel either party is that desperate right now.”
Sylva’s ABC store made $314,000 in profits last year. Of that, 12 percent is required to go to alcohol education programs and law enforcement. The remaining $280,000 was split between Sylva and Jackson County, receiving $140,000 each.
Sharing the take is not a requirement, according to County Manager Chuck Wooten, but part of a deal struck in the 1960s when Sylva was seeking support for its alcohol referendum. Now Sylva, in turn, could potentially reap benefits from county sales of liquor if the county agrees to extend the deal the other way.
Slicing the liquor pie
Sylva also stands to lose out from the competition of additional ABC stores in the county. Sylva Commissioner Chris Matheson worried about what a new store in Cashiers could do to sales in the Sylva store.
“I think that building a store in Cashiers may generate additional revenues, but how much will it pull from Sylva?” Matheson said.
Not only will the public be able to stock up on liquor without driving down to Sylva’s store, but it also stands to lose the business of bars, clubs and restaurants in Cashiers that currently are forced to purchase their liquor from Sylva since it is the only ABC store in the county.
Peggy Queen, general manager of Sylva’s ABC store, said the store made $50,000 to $60,000 a year from establishments in Cashiers, which had been allowed to serve alcohol as private clubs.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said in his opinion, legalizing the sale of alcohol countywide wouldn’t entice a single person to drink who didn’t drink anyway.
“We’re just taking the pie that we have and are going to serve slices at other locations,” Moody said.
But, Commissioner Doug Cody said he believes that if Jackson County opens additional ABC stores, particularly in Cashiers, there would be additional revenue generated over and beyond what the Sylva store pulls in now. He said many individuals in Cashiers go into neighboring Highlands to buy liquor, and he believes people going to the casino in Cherokee might be more likely stop at a store in Qualla.
Sandra Baty, the general manager of the Highlands ABC store, attended the meeting. She said 21 percent of gross sales, or $7,000, was generated by Cashiers customers alone last week.
“So that’s why I’m interested in what you’re going to be doing,” Baty said in explaining why she attended.
Regardless of whether the county opens additional stores, Moody emphasized that he believes one combined ABC board would serve both the county and town best.
Laurie Lee, an ABC Board auditor and director of pricing, said turning a profit with a new ABC store is difficult because of the debt of a building.
“To open a new store today and be profitable you pretty much have to do a million dollars in sales. If you are not doing a million, it’s really hard to show a profit,” she said.
Lee told town and county leaders there was no one correct way to build a structure for countywide alcohol sales, that there is no mandated state blueprint for leaders here to follow.
“And there’s no one way to write a merger agreement,” Lee said of the possible formation of a future combined board between Sylva and Jackson County.
Debnam reiterated that the county does not have to create an ABC board unless it opens a liquor store.
“That’s correct,” Lee responded. “But whether you open up a store or not, you could still have a countywide board.”
There is no set number of members required for a merged board. Currently, Sylva has a three-member board. Members receive $150 a month in pay, and the ABC Board chairman receives $250 a month.