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Bottoms up, Jackson: Voters approve countywide alcohol sales

Jackson voters approved alcohol sales in Tuesday’s election by a comfortable margin, making it only the third county in Western North Carolina to permit the sale of booze county wide. Most counties are dry, with alcohol sales only allowed inside town limits.

Voter turnout was higher in Jackson than many surrounding counties — likely inspired by the issue of alcohol being on the ballot.

There were four separate questions on the ballot: the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks, plus whether to open an ABC store somewhere in the county.

Cullowhee has perhaps the biggest vested interest in alcohol sales. It is home to Western Carolina University, but since it is not technically a town, you can’t buy a case of beer at the gas station nor pony up to the bar. The stark lack of nightlife, bars and restaurants typically associated with the college scene have potentially hampered its ability to recruit students.

“This is potentially good for the university,” said Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU professor who is also involved with efforts to revitalize Cullowhee. “Having nice places to go could help in attracting students.”

Herzog worries that the lack of planning in Cullowhee could lead to not-so-attractive establishments opening. She hopes the vote to approve alcohol can jumpstart efforts to get community-based planning going in Cullowhee that would be similar to what is in place in Cashiers.

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“It could be very good for the economy, and I hope that is what happens,” said Herzog.

In Cashiers, alcohol sales are also a welcome addition, saving a long and twisty drive down the mountain into Sylva to get a simple bottle of wine. Cashiers will be the likely location for a county-run ABC store, hurting the bottom line of Sylva’s ABC store, which previously had a corner on the market. It will also open the door for restaurants to sell alcohol, enabling them to compete on more of a level playing field with establishments in nearby Highlands, which has alcohol.

And on the opposite end of the county in the Whittier area, the election results will likely touch off a growth boom of convenience stores and restaurants selling alcohol on the doorstep of Cherokee. The reservation is dry — an alcohol vote there was soundly defeated last month.

Now that it has passed in Jackson County, businesses can park themselves just beyond the reservation’s boundary to capture the business of both Cherokee residents and the robust tourist trade there.

Many voters interviewed at the polls today said they believe alcohol will help Jackson’s economy and attract restaurants that would otherwise shy away from the mostly dry county.

“I want more restaurants and better things in the area,” Kathy Didonato, 45, said on her way out of the polls Tuesday. “It is going to make Jackson County grow.”

Since there is already alcohol sold in Sylva and Dillsboro, some residents did not see why it would be a problem to expand that to the remainder of the county.

“I personally don’t see what the big issue is,” said Christopher Rosbor, 20.

Taylor Bennett, a resident of Cullowhee, said that people have to balance the good and the bad side of having alcohol.

“You want the convenience of alcohol sales in your local store, but at the same time, you don’t want a raging local bar,” he said.

For Bennett, the good outweighed bad. Countywide alcohol would allow Cullowhee to capitalize on money that would otherwise go to Sylva.

Buncombe and Clay counties are the other two in WNC that allow countywide alcohol sales. Voters in Henderson County also had a ballot measure on countywide alcohol sales Tuesday. It passed there as well.

Historically, alcohol has been a point of contention whenever it has appeared on the ballot, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.

There was a marked lack of opposition to countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however, with the exception of a public stance taken by the Tuckaseigee Baptist Association.

A poll conducted two years ago by Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute in cooperation with The Smoky Mountain News was a harbinger of public sentiment: it predicted that 56 percent of registered voters would support countywide alcohol sales compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

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