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New college landscape greets returning WCU students

fr alcoholIt’s been more than three months since voters in Jackson County approved a countywide alcohol initiative. Yet, except for a few telltale signs, a look around Cullowhee on the doorstep of Western Carolina University wouldn’t lead anyone to believe that much has changed at all.


There is no boon of new bars being built or proliferation of stores dedicated to selling alcohol. In fact, by freshman move-in day last week, it didn’t appear many entrepreneurs at all had jumped at the chance to provide convenient alcohol to a long-underserved, and notoriously thirsty, population in the county: college students.

Rather, the signs of the change were subtler and slow to manifest. A sign touting the non-alcoholic beer O’Doul’s is still displayed prominently in the storefront window of Bob’s Mini Mart in the heart of campus — while the neon Bud Light, Yeungling signs and the likes are relegated to a spot on the back wall.

The owner of the Rolling Stone Burrito has had a temporary alcohol permit in his possession for more than a month, but didn’t plan to start selling beer until this week. He said he just wasn’t in a hurry.

“We haven’t served out first drink yet,” said Wes Stone, owner of the burrito joint. “We aren’t rushing into it yet, we’re easing in.”

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Even the new wine selection at the Texaco in Cullowhee is tucked politely between all the other aisles of gas station food such as Doritos and Ding Dongs.

One of the only places that would jump out at any passerby is the future home of the Empty Keg, a keg vending store, with a picture of a drinking circus monkey painted on the window. The other is the Package Store, a trailer next to the Texaco that has been converted into an alcohol store.

But as students pour onto campus the lights are off inside the Empty Keg, which appears to be in the middle of a remodeling project. The sign in front of the Package store says it will open in September. But that timeline might be optimistic, and the owner was already looking to hand-off the store before it even opened.

“Within six weeks, we’ll be open,” said storeowner Mike Clark. “But I’m looking to lease it to someone with more time and experience.”

But there was no denying Clark’s excitement about the business prospect. He has owned that property for over 10 years and jumped at the chance to do something with it. He was among the first to apply for a permit to sell alcohol following the election and has been readying the store over the past two months, including paving a parking lot and putting up a sign. He said after seeing businesses fail for years in Cullowhee, the opportunity that alcohol brought couldn’t be passed up on.

“We are going to have a large walk-in cooler and the coldest beer in the region,” Clark said. “Wine, and beer at 28 degrees.”

Mad Batter bakery owner Jeanette Evans said the sale of beer and wine in her restaurant has been promising so far, and, after 14 years in busines, she said the sale of alcohol introduces a new dynamic.

“Summer, this time, has been steadier as a business,” Evans said. “It’s been exciting to expand and change – something new, something different.”

But with her location right in the middle of the university, she is reluctant to allow her small shop come to resemble anything like a local college watering hole.

“I’d probably like to just stay a restaurant,” she said. “A bar is a lot of strain.”

However, she is optimistic the permitted sale of alcohol in the area will work to keep students from abandoning the campus area on weekends and going elsewhere to recreate.


WCU: no plans for alcohol crackdown

But if Cullowhee has been slow to adjust to the prospect of alcohol, so too will be the students — if they even change their behavior at all, according to the university Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Sam Miller.

Of course, the lack of alcohol in Cullowhee didn’t stop them from drinking. A confidential survey measuring alcohol and drug use among WCU students in 2008 showed 76 percent of respondents said they drank at some level. More than 63 percent drank at least monthly, and more than 15 percent drank two to three times a week.

“In many aspects Cullowhee has been wet for many years because there are students here,” Miller said. “But now it’s a lot more convenient than it used to be.”

He said about two-thirds of the student population can’t drink alcohol legally because they are underage. Some dorms on campus don’t have any students living in them over the age of 21. Penalties for drinking or distributing alcohol on campus range from reprimands to suspension.

Miller said the university is not gearing up in anticipation of more alcohol disciplinary actions, nor has it tightened its punishments.

“The rules haven’t changed on campus,” he said.

Miller speculated that students wouldn’t be spending any more money on alcohol overall, that the new law would just change the location in which it was spent. In otherwords, instead of venturing to Sylva to get their purchases they won’t have to go as far.

Furthermore, with classes starting soon and still no bonafide bar in Cullowhee, Miller said he would welcome one to enhance the experience of students.

“Speaking personally, I would welcome a bar near campus if it were run well and it would help improve the campus for students,” Miller said.

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