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Alcohol referendum in Cherokee raises questions about who could sell

Joe Bock, an Indiana resident passing through this area on his way to Florida, was on a bit of a mission one recent day in Cherokee. Bock wanted to enjoy a beer with his lunch.

That desire remained unfulfilled, however — the restaurants on the Qualla Boundary, other than at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, are dry. Bock wasn’t particularly upset, and said the absence of a beer with his lunch wouldn’t deter a repeat visit to the region.

“But sometimes you’d just like a beer,” he said in something of a wistful tone.

Voters might change all that in April. Cherokee tribal members will vote on referendum questions that could bring alcoholic beverages to stores and restaurants reservation-wide.

One sticking point? News that Principal Chief Michell Hicks wants the tribe to control sales of beer, wine and liquor through a tribally run alcohol store rather than allowing it on the shelves of gas stations and grocery stores.

That concerns Pete Patel, who with his wife owns Jenkins Grocery, the last stopping point on old U.S. 19 headed west to Bryson City just before motorists leave the reservation’s boundaries.

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“We’re struggling even to survive,” Patel said. “If we could sell (alcoholic beverages) legally, we’d like to sell them. We could use a little extra help.”

Hicks would support alcohol in restaurants, however, and that pleases Emily Geisler, the manager of Tribal Grounds, a popular coffee shop on the reservation.

“I think it’s really important, especially for restaurants, to be able to offer beer or wine,” Geisler said. “If somebody wants the full dining experience, now they have to go out of town.”

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