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Business owners craft campaign to promote alcohol sales

A group of Cherokee business leaders will be a driving force in the campaign to permit alcohol sales on the reservation.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the currently dry reservation.

“Most business owners are saying the same thing — it would be a nice option,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber and the Cherokee ABC Board hosted a public meeting last Wednesday (Nov. 2) to gauge businesses’ opinions about the possibility of alcohol sales. About 20 people attended.

Several business owners said they had lost business because they are not permitted to sell adult beverages.

“It is imperative that our restaurants have alcohol,” said Morgan Owle-Crisp, a business owner and member of the tribe. Owle-Crisp added that potential customers travel to Asheville and other surrounding cities to eat and drink.

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Beth Wolpert, manager of Yogi in the Smokies, a campground in Cherokee, said that she has had campers leave after finding out that they would have to drive 20 minutes to Bryson City to buy alcohol.

While tourism in Cherokee has improved over the past decade thanks both to the casino and cultural emphasis by the tribe, tourism overall on the reservation has been on the decline since its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, business owners said.

Alcohol could bring back some of that lost revenue, agreed business owners in attendance.

“We don’t have John Wayne out there promoting the Indians,” said Collette Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo.

Even if the referendum passes, the tribal ABC board will have the final say regarding who receives an alcohol permit.

To qualify to sell alcohol, a restaurant or grocery store would have to get 30 to 40 percent of its revenue from food sales, said Bob Blakenship, chair of the Cherokee ABC Board. Blakenship projected that a tribal ABC store would sell $500,000 in alcohol each year.

One reason for the major push to approve the referendum is a similar vote slated in Jackson County in May. If the measure passes, gas stations a stone’s throw from the reservation in Jackson County could sell beer and wine from their shelves. Jackson County could also place an ABC store selling bottles of liquor as close to Cherokee as possible, said Don Rose, vice chair of the tribal ABC board.

“It is going to be at our doorstep anyway,” he said. “All we’re doing is making it more convenient (to purchase alcohol).”

The three-part ballot will allow voters to separately weigh in on where alcohol sales should be permitted.

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

Tribe members can approve all, none, or one or two of these.

Attendees at the meeting talked about the wording of the ballot.

“You want simplicity in these question,” Rose said. “Otherwise, people won’t know what they are voting for.”

The Chamber of Commerce will hold its regular monthly meeting Nov. 15 and discuss funding for the campaign.

On Nov. 17, a campaign committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Chestnut Tree Inn to begin formulating a plan, aimed at raising awareness and promoting the benefits of allowing alcohol on the reservation. The committee will discuss advertising in newspapers and on billboards as well as arranging an informational meeting for tribal members.

“People need to know it’s not going to be widespread,” said Steve Arch, owner of Big Bear Exxon Mart.

The committee will work under a tentative deadline of April 15 since it is currently unknown when or if the vote will occur.

A plan and funding for a campaign should be in place 90 days before the vote, Rose said.

Tribal Council approved the referendum regarding reservation-wide alcohol sales last month, giving tribal members a say in the historically controversial issue.

Nine out of 12 council members voted for the referendum. The other three didn’t exactly vote “no.” Two voted to table the measure, the third was out of town for the vote.

Chief Michell Hicks has until Nov. 23 — 30 days following the tribal council vote — to veto the referendum. As of Monday afternoon, Hicks had yet to make a decision.

Even if the chief shoots down the measure, tribal council can override his veto with a two-thirds majority, which they appear to have.

Tribal members have voted against allowing reservation-wide alcohol sales twice before. In 2009, however, voters approved a referendum to permit the sale of alcohol in the casino.

While proponents say alcohol will help Cherokee’s economy and attract tourists to local businesses, opponents of the referendum cite religious convictions and a long history of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.

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