Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe is refusing to grant permits for businesses wanting to sell alcoholic beverages despite voters overwhelmingly approving countywide alcohol sales when the issue appeared on the ballot earlier this month.
With Jackson County no longer dry, more than a dozen businesses have jumped on the booze bandwagon, from grocery stores to gas stations to restaurants, hoping to add alcohol to their coolers and menus. But so far, Ashe has balked at signing off on the needed permits.
In response, county commissioners are considering whether to strip Ashe of the authority and appoint someone else to oversee the permits instead.
“This caught all of us by surprise,” Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said of the board of commissioners. “I guess Sheriff Ashe has his opinion about whether Jackson County ought to sell alcoholic beverages, and it didn’t really matter what the wishes of the people were.”
Voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages May 8 by nearly 60 percent. Since then 13 businesses in Jackson County have started the application process. County commissioners must appoint someone to oversee and approve those applications.
Last week commissioners voted to have Ashe handle what’s known as the local government opinion part of the process — essentially a formality in which a local official says whether they approve of the applicant and of their particular location.
Ashe, however, has taken his authority to a new and unexpected level. The sheriff turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store in Whittier, for example, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of its own in April. Ashe apparently did not see fit for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep.
“Cherokee Indian Reservation as a sovereign nation recently voted down alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary, which was a strong message from that community that it was not wanted or needed,” Ashe wrote in a letter last week to Catamount Travel Center regarding the reasons for disapproval.
Additionally, the sheriff wrote that 1.7 million people annually travel by this location going to the reservation, and that letting the Catamount Travel Center sell alcohol would create “traffic problems and an overwhelming amount of motor vehicle accidents.”
Ashe asked the county commissioners for a budget increase to hire eight new deputies following the passage of countywide alcohol sales, claiming that establishments selling alcohol would place additional demands on his patrol units. Commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach, however, to determine whether the need is in fact there.
Ashe also rejected Catamount Travel Center’s request to sell alcohol at its Cullowhee location near Western Carolina University. In that case, he said the business was “located within 50 feet of educational institution properties in which 80 percent of the student population being potential customers are underage thus bringing on the problems of underage consumption and alcohol-related crimes involving persons underage.”
The sheriff said that “with a 10,000 student population this agency has already experienced a significant increase in underage drinking, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related sex offenses at fraternities and even alcohol-related deaths … with my experience of 30 years in law enforcement, this would not be a suitable location for alcohol sales.”
Ashe also turned down Bob’s Mini Mart, located in a strip mall on campus known as the “catwalk,” for essentially the same reasons. Owner Bob Hooper said that the sheriff claimed the business was within 50 feet of the university. Hooper said that it is not.
Most other college campuses in the state, if not the country, have stores and bars selling alcohol all around them, yet drinking is not substantially different among students at WCU where it is less accessible, according to a study by the Healthy Campus initiative on alcohol and drug use among students in 2007.
Whether Ashe would apply his reasoning to blacklist any and all gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants wanting to serve alcohol in the greater Cullowhee area is unknown. Ashe did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.
Nor is he returning messages left by Debnam either. Debnam called looking for some answers about what’s going on.
Debnam said that while the full board of county commissioners must make the decision, he for one is leaning toward picking someone else to handle the local application procedure. Commissioner Doug Cody said the same thing.
“We don’t have to have him do it,” Cody said. “There’s other options out there if this is going to be a problem for him.”
Ashe’s refusal to approve the applications is delaying the process but not stopping it. That’s because local business owners have the right to appeal the decision directly to the N.C. ABC Commission, which many of them are doing.
Hooper wasted no time bypassing Ashe and going straight to Raleigh. After getting his letter of denial from Ashe on Thursday, he was on the road to Raleigh the next morning to appeal to the N.C. ABC Commission. ABC agents plan to hear the appeal within a mandated 21-day period, he said.
“We’re going to get it, but it’s going to be a little slower,” Hooper said of his permit to sell.
Dwight Winchester, owner of the two Catamount Travel Centers, also drove to Raleigh on Friday, challenging Ashe’s denial of permits for both his Cherokee and Cullowhee locations. He received permission to start selling beer in his establishment outside Cherokee. He’s still blocked for now on the Cullowhee one, but he’s optimistic the ABC Commission will reverse that decision, too.
“He’s doing this to everyone in Cullowhee,” Winchester said of Ashe’s decision to deny him the permits.
Winchester said the state plans to investigate for itself whether his convenience store in Cullowhee is an appropriate location to sell beer and wine despite Ashe’s claims.
“What he wrote is factually incorrect. That’s what pissed me off with the sheriff,” Winchester said.
Ashe also claimed that allowing Catamount Travel Center in Cullowhee to sell alcohol would impede emergency responders at the Cullowhee Fire Department, that the fire department itself has protested against this location selling alcoholic beverages and that this would increase the probability of more alcohol-related accidents at the main intersection of the university.
Agnes Stevens, spokeswoman for the state ABC Commission, said it’s standard procedure for the state to do its own research if an applicant objects to having their permit denied at the local level.
“While local governments have a voice, the commission has the final say,” Stevens said.
Other business owners are gearing up to sell alcohol but aren’t yet ready equipment-wise, so the delay hasn’t impacted their bottom lines.
Jim Nichols, who owns an Exxon service station and a BP service station in Cashiers, said space is tight at the Exxon and that readying the store for beer coolers is going to require some expansion. He believes being able to offer beer to customers will help his businesses.
“If I had a nickel or dime for every customer who walked through that door looking for beer, wine or wine coolers, I’d have a lot of dough now,” Nichols said. “When we say we don’t have it, their faces show bewilderment — because this is a resort town.”
Jeannette Evans, owner of Mad Batter Bakery & Café, believes the availability of alcoholic beverages will help all of Cullowhee, not just her restaurant.
“I think of it as a chance to expand the vitality of the area and to expand the energy at night,” she said. “People like to sit down and have a glass of wine or a beer. I do think it’s part of dining out in the evening.”
Who wants to sell booze?
Here’s who has applied in Jackson County to begin selling alcoholic beverages.
• Catamount Travel Center, Cullowhee
• Bob’s Mini Mart, Cullowhee
• Sazon, Cullowhee
• The Package Store, Cullowhee
• Mad Batter, Cullowhee
• Rolling Stone Burrito, Cullowhee
• Caney Fork General Store, Tuckasegee
• Tamburini’s Restaurant, Cashiers
• Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers
• Cashiers’ Farmers Market, Cashiers
• The Orchard, Cashiers
• Ingles grocery, Cashiers
• Catamount Travel Center, Cherokee
Exactly how many businesses have had their permits denied isn’t known. Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has not responded to requests that public records on this matter be released.