Alcohol referenda to appear on Cherokee’s September ballot
Cherokee voters will decide whether to loosen alcohol regulations on the Qualla Boundary this September by answering three referendum questions Tribal Council approved Wednesday, July 7 .
The majority of council approved all three questions during the special session in which they voted on the issue. The referenda will be added to the Sept. 2 ballot pending ratification from Principal Chief Richard Sneed, who has been a proponent of the measures.
“In order to have the food and beverage anchors that we need for a sustainable tourism economy, then we have to have alcohol sales — be that if that’s going to be package sales in an ABC store run by the TABCC and/or beverages sold at restaurants,” Sneed said. “I would encourage the voters to participate. This is an important issue.”
Every night, Sneed observed, town clears out around 5 p.m. every night as tourists go elsewhere for dinner and evening entertainment.
In addition to choosing their Tribal Council and School Board representatives , on Election Day voters will answer “yes” or “no” to three questions:
• Do you support expanding the sales of malt beverages (beer) at retail establishments (grocery or convenience stores) within the Qualla Boundary?
• Do you support allowing the Tribal ABC Commission to operate an ABC package store to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands?
• Do you support expanding the sales of malt beverages and wines at restaurants, hotels and other qualified establishments within the Qualla Boundary?
“Expanding alcohol sales is a critical part of economic development,” all three resolutions say. “Without the sales, Cherokee cannot compete with surrounding communities that provide that amenity.”
The tribe has held several alcohol-related referendum votes over the years, most recently in 2018 when voters were asked to approve a tribally owned package and ABC store. The measure failed to garner the required 30% turnout to be valid under the law, and of those who did show up to vote only 47.4% approved the proposal. The law governing referendum measures includes a mandatory two-year waiting period before a referendum question can be revisited after voters strike it down, and that requirement has now been satisfied.
However, the referendum is likely to secure a larger turnout this time around, as it will take place during a General Election rather than as a standalone special election as occurred in 2018.
Currently, alcohol sales are allowed only on casino property as well as at establishments located within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp. The Tribal ABC Commission may also grant permits for one-time events such as festivals.
While most council members endorsed the measures, Painttown Representatives Tommye Saunooke and Dike Sneed, as well as Wolfetown Representative Bo Crowe, voted against the first and third questions pertaining to retail sales of alcoholic beverages on the Qualla Boundary. Saunooke and Dike Sneed both voted in favor of asking voters to approve an ABC package store.
“I wanted the tribe to be able to get the revenue, so that’s why Dike and I support it. We’ve already discussed it with our community and they feel the same way,” Saunooke said following the vote. “They just didn’t want every little store to have it. They wanted just one if we had to have it.”
Birdtown Representative Boyd Owle, who submitted all three resolutions, said he views expansion of alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary as a vital tool for economic development.
“I think they’re looking for a revenue source here,” Owle said. “If we did pass bringing beer into the grocery stores and convenience stores, I think that would be a great revenue generator. We have it off the Boundary anywhere you go.”
“Until we get this passed, our town will remain the way it is,” added Birdtown Representative Albert Rose. “You can go anywhere else — Bryson, Waynesville — and it’s just a good atmosphere. Here it’s just like a drive-thru ghost town to me.”
Council members approved adding Rose’s name to the “submitted by” portion of all three resolutions and adding Chief Sneed’s name to the first resolution at the request of those officials.
After the votes, Wolfetown representative Chelsea Saunooke stressed the importance of getting the word out to community members about the referenda and the rationale behind them. ABC Chairman Pepper Taylor said his board is in the process of putting together a request for proposals to a marketing firm that can work on messaging ahead of the vote, and that he would also make appearances at community club meetings over the coming months to discuss the issue. Chelsea Saunooke added that a town hall meeting might be a good idea as well.
Vice Chief Alan “B” Ensley agreed with that suggestion but said he objected to approving the referenda during a special session.
“I think when we have a controversial issue such as this, I think it needs to be put on the agenda so that we can all go to our communities and hear what they have to say,” he said. “I think it sets a bad precedent. I’ll support referendums in the past. I still support it. But I think they need to be done in the right manner.”
The referendum questions were first submitted to Tribal Council in January but tabled and then withdrawn when they reappeared on the April agenda. The law requires that any referendum vote be carried out within 90 days of the questions being approved — Tribal Council wanted to place the questions on the September ballot, but if the resolutions had passed in April the vote would have had to occur earlier.
“A referendum has to be done within 90 days,” Vice Chairman David Wolfe said at the beginning of the July 7 special session. “This particular one has a timeframe of 90 days. The Council session didn’t fall within that 90 days. Just to let the public know, that’s why we’re here for this referendum request. It’s not to try to hide anything or anything.”
While the June 1 meeting came 93 days before the Sept. 2 General Election, the July 8 meeting fell 56 days before the General Election and the July 7 special session came 57 days ahead. Requests for clarification on the timing issue sent to Wolfe and Attorney General Mike McConnell were not returned as of press time.