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Cherokee business community tests the waters on alcohol sales

The absence of alcohol in Cherokee is hurting tourism, according to the business community. And that’s something the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce might like to change. Over the past month, the chamber has conducted an informal poll of businesses to see where they stand on the issue.

“More people want it than don’t want it,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the chamber. “It’d be nice if Cherokee had a little bit more opportunity economically to bring in some of the other dining options into the area.”

While casino patrons can get a drink after voters in 2009 approved alcohol sales for Harrah’s, the rest of the reservation is still bone dry.

As a result of the poll, the board of the Cherokee chamber is deciding whether, and if so how, it should officially push for a more permissive alcohol policy.

Pegg said that, while some people in this fairly traditional community are reluctant to talk about legalizing alcohol, many business owners are getting more vocal about allowing everyone to serve, not just Harrah’s.

“Essentially, they just want a level playing field,” said Pegg. “If you’re allowed to have it in one restaurant, why can’t you have it in all of them?”

That’s an argument that’s popped up on-and-off since the approval of drinks at Harrah’s two years ago. While alcohol has been a contentious issue in Cherokee, voters approved the idea of selling it at the casino by a surprisingly large majority of 59 to 41 percent.

Feeling slighted, however, the business community at the time circulated a petition lobbying for alcohol across the board. Pegg admits that a good number of business owners are just as passionate about keeping alcohol out.

Many restaurants in Cherokee already have a bring-your-own policy, though the percentage that take that opportunity is often much smaller than those who would buy drinks with their meal, especially given that the closest non-casino sales are a 30-minute round trip to nearby Bryson City.

When the referendum came around in 2009, much of the opposition centered around the social consequences it would bring and was steeped in the Christian religious tradition that runs deep in the area.

But Pegg maintains that, looking at other locales with alcohol sales, those concerns would likely prove unfounded.

“We are in a predominantly religious area where alcohol is not as acceptable,” he said. “The stigma is ‘Oh my goodness, you serve alcohol and the place is going to go crazy,’ but I think people are more worried about it becoming a booze town than they need to.”

Alcohol, he argues, would be heavily regulated. And with drinks offering higher profit margins than food alone, introducing beer, wine and mixed drinks might give some restaurants an extra few weeks on each end of the season. Some, he suggests, may even be able to stay open through the winter, where they currently shutter during the tourist off-season.

Right now, though, moral concerns aren’t the only obstacle standing in the way.

Elections for some council members and principal chief are ramping up, and it would be difficult to find a more hot-button topic in Cherokee than alcohol. In light of that, many have responded to chamber queries that this year might not be the time to bring it up.

But for Pegg and the 203 businesses that are members of the chamber, as the recession is still kicking, there is no better time than now.

Harrah’s alone pulled in more than $1 million in alcohol sales last year, and now the rest of the reservation is hungry for a slice of such a lucrative pie.

“It gives them an option to have more revenue,” said Pegg, “and that’s more jobs and more tax and more everything.”

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