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Haywood vote on countywide alcohol to pit business interests against religious convictions

fr haywoodalcoholBeer is good for business.

That’s the message supporters of countywide beer and wine sales in Haywood County are hoping to get across in the run-up to a ballot question in November’s election.

Alcohol sales are allowed in the town limits of Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Canton only — not out in the county. That would change if a local ballot measure passes in November’s election to allow the sale of beer and wine countywide in Haywood.

Alcohol as an economic engine has already emerged as a central theme among supporters.

“It opens the door of possibilities for any business outside the town limits,” said Suzanne Fernandez, the former owner of the upscale Lomo Grill in downtown Waynesville. “There are so many good businesses that really bring charm and value to Haywood County, that I think that it just is a no-brainer.”

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Now retired from the fulltime restaurant business, Fernandez and her husband Chef Ricardo dapple in an eclectic mix of culinary adventures these days, including cooking classes, wine and food pairings, culinary tours and outdoor grilling classes — occasionally hosting special food events at their farm in Fines Creek. 

On-farm culinary experiences have a huge draw these days, but in a county where alcohol can’t be sold out in the country, it’s a limiting factor.

For Sandra Steffani, an Italian chef who recently moved here from Miami, her vision of a gourmet, farm-to-table boutique dining venue set in the countryside hinges on being able to serve wine.

“Of course, it would have been a deal killer,” she said. “You don’t make money on food. It would be totally limiting yourself, and limiting revenue.”

Steffani is launching her new restaurant — more of an intimate culinary experience — on the property of Grandview Lodge, a small rustic inn outside Waynesville. It’s outside the town limits, so alcohol sales normally would be off the table there. But past proprietors of Grandview got around the county’s rules using a state exemption for tourist resorts, and Steffani has just waded into the process of reactivating it.

She would rather be devoting her creative energies to her new menu, however.

“I think the county should vote ‘yes’ to serving beer and wine,” Steffani said.

“If they want to serve ice tea that is up to them, but restaurant owners should be the ones to make that choice,” she said.

Whether it’s a country diner or exquisite mountaintop dining room, restaurants located outside town limits are stymied by the county’s ban on alcohol sales, which puts them on an unfair footing compared to those inside town limits.

Gas stations without a beer cooler are likewise at a disadvantage to their in-town counterparts.

“We thought it did represent some potential inequity to allow a person to sell package alcohol in one location and a half-mile down the road they couldn’t,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

Swanger said county leaders had been asked by merchants outside the town limits, including convenience store owners, to put the issue to a vote.

“There is an issue of economic fairness,” said County Manager Ira Dove.

Debbie Milner, the owner of Sentelle’s fresh seafood and specialty foods market in Clyde, said she loses customers almost daily who want a bottle of wine to go with their seafood dinner, but have to head down the road to Canton or Waynesville to get it.

“It would greatly benefit us, especially with the clientele we have. It is the missing link for us,” said Milner.

Sentelle’s is located in the town limits of Clyde, the only town in Haywood County that doesn’t allow alcohol sales.

If the ballot measure passes, the sale of beer and wine would become legal in Clyde by default, according to state statute. 

Milner said she had repeatedly asked Clyde leaders to hold a vote on alcohol sales in town, but they never have. The countywide vote now gives her hope that Sentelle’s won’t have to play with one hand tied behind its back anymore.

“I certainly hope it will pass. I don’t see why not. It is all over the county anyway,” she said.

The prospect of financial gain thanks to beer and wine sales prompted Commissioner Mike Sorrells to abstain from the vote when it came up at the commissioners meeting last week. As the owner of a gas station and general store in rural Jonathan Creek, using his position as commissioner to cast a vote in favor of something that would reap personal benefit would violate conflict of interest rules.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a devout Christian, was the only commissioner who voted against putting it on the ballot, for a final outcome of 3 to 1.


The dark downside of alcohol 

Mark Caldwell, the pastor of North Canton Baptist Church, said many in the Christian community are planning to campaign against the countywide alcohol vote. Caldwell said he has seen firsthand the heartache and societal ills caused by alcohol, from the families of alcoholics ending up homeless on the street to teenagers killed in drunk driving accidents.

“They may be saying that it will help our economy, but is it worth it?” Caldwell asked. “When you expand the territory where it can be accessed to the far reaches of our county, people don’t have to drive into town to get it, and it will be more available.”

Caldwell said instead of pushing alcohol into more communities, the county should be focused on ways to help families suffering from an alcohol addiction. 

“Instead of the commissioners focusing on how to help our economy sell more alcohol, I think we need to focus on the children who are homeless and have nowhere to go,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell also questioned the idea of communities being subjected to the will of the majority countywide, even if their own community doesn’t want it. 

In other counties where countywide alcohol votes have been held, it’s normal to see the vote fail in precincts in outlying rural areas, but pass in the county as a whole.

“If they put it on that ballot and it goes in, even if some precincts don’t want it, they will have it come in anyway,” Caldwell said. “I enjoy going into the restaurants that are in the county and being able to sit down with my family and enjoy a meal and not having to worry about my kids being exposed to drinking.”

A popular election is the only way for alcohol sales to be legalized in any given town or county. But first, local leaders have to put the issue on the ballot and allow a vote to happen.

As little as 20 years ago, it would have been brazen at best and political suicide at worst to call for an alcohol referendum in rural mountain counties, where the population is more religious and socially conservative.

But the mountains aren’t quite so rural anymore, not quite so religious and not quite as socially conservative today compared to then.

Nonetheless, counties that ban alcohol sales outside town limits still outnumber those that don’t in the mountains — but barely.

Voters in Clay and Cherokee counties — both arguably more rural and conservative than Haywood — have approved countywide alcohol sales recently. Meanwhile, the only truly dry county in the state is Graham, two doors over from Haywood.


The brewery business

Another major factor that led commissioners to put countywide alcohol sales on the ballot is economic development, and more specifically, the brewery industry.

Asheville has proven that beer can be a big business, and big employer. The brewery industry employs nearly 1,000 people in the greater Asheville area, including more than dozen homegrown microbreweries along with large-scale, big name breweries.

While Asheville is the beer-brewing epicenter, neighboring Henderson and Transylvania counties have laid claim to their own piece of the beer pie, each landing major breweries of their own.

Getting in on the brewery action has been brought up several times in recent months during economic development strategy sessions by county leaders. But the county is limited in its ability to court breweries unless alcohol sales are legalized throughout the county, given that most of the large tracts of land suitable to site a brewery are located out in the county.

Aside from courting breweries to come in to Haywood, homegrown, start-up breweries that have proven successful are limited in where they can go if they want to expand their operations.

“You already have breweries here,” Dove said, rattling off the names of four breweries located in Waynesville’s town limits. “What if they want to expand out into another area?”

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