Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.
Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.
“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”
Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.
In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.
Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.
“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.
Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.
“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.
Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.
Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.
Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.
“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.
Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.
“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.
Then there’s Cullowhee
A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.
Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.
“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”
To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.
Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.
Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.
Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.
“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.
Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.
“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”
Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.
Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.
“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.
Help everyone but Sylva?
Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.
If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.
“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.
Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.
Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.
The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.
“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”
Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.
Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.
And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.
As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.
Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.
Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.
“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”
Time will tell
Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.
“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”
Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.
“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”
How the ballot would work
It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.
Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?
“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.
Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.
The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.
Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.
The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.
Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.
There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.
The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.