Historically, ballot measures on alcohol sales in Western North Carolina have been bitterly fought affairs, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.
But, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, where voters go to the polls next month to decide on whether to allow countywide alcohol sales. If the referendum passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in Western North Carolina with countywide alcohol sales, joining Buncombe and Clay. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on the issue in May.
In Jackson County both sides — if there are actually two sides — look set to head to the polls next month with nary a shot fired for or against the important vote.
“I think it’s a reflection of a different era and a different time,” said the Rev. Rich Peoples of Grace Community Church in Sylva.
Peoples said he believes that “churches frankly are fairly conflicted” on the issue. Most in this day and age, the preacher said, opt to leave the decisions about whether to drink alcoholic beverages — in moderation — to individual church members. And, the same is true concerning decisions about whether to vote for alcohol sales countywide, too, Peoples said.
The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
“My guess is that people want economic development and that people are concerned that it will help businesses thrive,” said Becky Kornegay, a Jackson County resident who works in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
Like Peoples, Kornegay attributed the lack of obvious opposition to “it being just a different time — surely that battle already has been fought. You can buy beer now in Sylva.”
Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of Western Carolina University’s department of political science and public affairs, also pointed to the economy as one driving force for why there seems to be little to no public opposition.
“There may be concern about the positive economic impact” of a yes vote to the alcohol referendum, Knotts said, saying the lingering recession might have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.
Knotts also pointed to Clay County as a possible bellwether of change to WNC’s traditionally fierce no-alcohol stance. Clay is one of the region’s smallest and most rural counties. Residents there in 2009 voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.
There is a possible wildcard in the May primary: Amendment One is also on the ballot. Knotts said that could skew the vote one way or another, depending on which camp — pro-same sex marriages or against-same sex marriages — succeeds in galvanizing voters. That’s presuming, of course, that those in favor of same sex marriages would be more liberal and therefore would vote in favor of countywide alcohol sales.
Not everybody is pointblank in favor of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however. Cullowhee business owner Robin Lang said she has heard opposition and added that she has mixed feelings about voting “yes” herself. That’s because, Lang said, she’s concerned there’s no overseeing body such as a planning board in Cullowhee to shepherd in the commercial growth that likely would follow such a vote.
While Cullowhee is not an official town, as home to WCU and the large student population, it is already Jackson County’s largest and fastest-growing community. Cullowhee grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district.
Former Chancellor John Bardo floated a novel idea in 2010 to try to bring alcohol to the community. Bardo approached the tiny town of Forest Hills next door to WCU and suggested it legalize alcohol sales and then annex the university and its surrounds into its town limits — possibly opening the door for bar-like establishments that seem part and parcel of a vibrant college atmosphere. That idea has dissipated with Bardo’s retirement last July and with the very real prospect of countywide sales by referendum vote.
“There are people a little afraid of the alcohol vote,” Lang said, however, counting herself among that number. “There is a bigger picture. I was originally for it, but I’m more confused now about which way to vote.”
Whittier and the Gateway area of Jackson, which serves as an entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is the other community most likely to experience growth if alcohol sales are voted in countywide. Mark Rose, owner of GSM Thrift and Gift is all for the economic boost he believes alcohol sales would bring. His business is located between two service stations; Rose said customers looking for beer are turned away every day.
“People stop here for beer and we have to send them on back up the road to Sylva,” he said. “I tell them, go to Exit 81. That man at Exit 81 must be rich. All our tax dollars go there, and we need to try to keep them here. Everybody is struggling for money.”
While Jackson County is dry, alcohol sales have been permitted in Sylva in some form since 1967. Most recently, Sylva voters approved the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants in 2006, giving it the full compliment of beer, wine and liquor sales, whether in restaurants or to take home. Dillsboro has allowed the purchase beer and wine only in restaurants since 2005.
In Cashiers, numerous loopholes in the state ABC law allow several bars and clubs there to legally sell alcoholic beverages in ostensibly “dry” Jackson County, either by qualifying as a “members-only” club or a sports club if its has an on-site golf course or tennis courts.