Controversy, questions after alcohol votes. Now, tax revenue?

Written by on June 7, 2012 in Buncombe, Clay, Community, Henderson, Jackson, Jobs and the Economy, Politics, Region, Top News Comments Off
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Businesses gear up for alcohol sales, but impact uncertain

Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe is one of three businesses on Centennial Drive, in the middle of Western Carolina University's campus, to have applied for a permit to sell alcohol after Jackson County voters approved a measure to allow sales countywide. Ben Haines/Carolina Public Press

Blue Ridge Pizza Company in Etowah has tripled its size since it opened in 2009. Since then, the Henderson County restaurant has served thousands of pizzas.

Soon, they’ll be able to sell mugs of beer, too.

On May 8, voters in Henderson and Jackson counties approved referendums allowing alcohol sales and the establishment of ABC stores in unincorporated areas of each county. Before the vote, Buncombe and Clay were the only counties among the state’s 17 westernmost to allow countywide alcohol sales.

With the measure’s passage, Blue Ridge Pizza owner Tom Sanders moved forward with a plan to extend his business into a vacant bay, adding another 50 seats to his restaurant. He anticipates even more business since customers now have the option to have an alcoholic beverage, too.

“I suspect we’ll draw in some new customers that would like to order a beer with their pizza,” he said.

Some applaud the changes because of potential business-boosting impacts – which could, if estimates hold up, mean increased tax revenues. As of Thursday morning, 17 locations in Jackson County had been issued temporary permits. Those businesses included a farmer’s market, grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants. In Henderson County, 19 temporary permits had been issued.

But not everyone agrees – or is jumping at the first chance to sell alcohol. And the measures have already raised a handful of concerns and controversies – even as other parts of Western North Carolina are working to embrace the beer industry. Just in this year, Sierra Nevada Brewing, New Belgium Brewing and Oskar Blues Brewing have each announced plans to build breweries in Western North Carolina.

For, Nick Sellas, Jr., the manager of Henderson County’s Mills River Restaurant, it’s business as usual.

The family-run operation specializing in fresh seafood and home-style cooking doesn’t plan to sell alcohol anytime soon, he said.

“We’ve asked our customers for their thoughts on selling drinks, and they would appreciate it if we don’t,” Sellas said. “We’re in the Bible Belt and have a big church crowd. Selling alcohol won’t benefit us.”

Changing campus, tribal dynamics

Before the election, Hendersonville, Fletcher and Laurel Park in Henderson County allowed the sale of alcohol. In Jackson County, Sylva was a wet city, and Dillsboro allowed beer and wine sales in restaurants.

Still, in both counties, sales will be legal as soon as businesses can complete the permitting process. Permits are granted by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, though it considers input from local government officials.

(Left to right) Rolling Stone Burrito, Mad Batter Bakery & Cafe and Bob's Mini Mart, located on Centennial Drive in the middle of the Western Carolina University campus, all applied for permits to allow the sale of alcohol. Bob's Mini Mart's application was originally denied pending an investigation, but now it is one of 17 places across the county to have been granted a temporary permit by the state ABC Commission. Ben Haines/Carolina Public Press

For his part, Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe had recommended to the state ABC Commission that the sale of alcohol not be allowed at several Jackson County locations, including a convenience store adjacent to Western Carolina University’s campus called Catamount Travel Center.

But Jackson County officials revoked his influence on the process earlier this week, the Smoky Mountain News reported. Temporary permits have now been issued that Catamount Travel Center location and to one in Whittier.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said three businesses that operate in the heart of WCU’s campus had also requested permits to serve or sell alcohol. One that had been previously denied pending an investigation, Bob’s Mini Mart, has now been issued a temporary permit, which is set to expire Sept. 3, according to the ABC Commission. Each business operates on a strip of land owned by the WCU Endowment Fund.

According to Sam Miller, vice chancellor of student affairs, the terms of the lease allows those businesses to make independent decisions about serving and selling alcohol pending the approval of a permit from the state ABC Commission.

“It will definitely change the dynamics on our campus,” Miller said. “We recognize that alcohol for traditional-age college students is one of the biggest (health and safety) risk factors with an array of negative outcomes. From our perspective, working with students on alcohol-related issues is to educate them and make them mindful of how their choices impact them, the campus and the community.”

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have also signaled concerns.

In April, the tribe’s enrolled members voted no to alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary, even though they approved in 2009 the sale of alcohol at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort – currently the only business permitted to sell alcohol there.

Opponents of alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary – the main parts of which are located in Jackson and Swain counties – have said broadening alcohol sales would lead to increased rates of alcoholism, drunken driving and domestic violence.

Many anticipate a boom in the number of places to buy alcohol in nearby Whittier, in Jackson County, near the reservation’s boundary. And proponents say the prohibition impacts the tribe’s tourism industry and the collection of tax revenue to combat alcohol-related issues.

Jody Bradley, an appointed member of the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, would prefer alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary.

“From my perspective, all of the funds for rehabilitation and education will go to Jackson County,” Bradley said. “We’ll see none of it.”

North Carolina general statutes require that each local ABC board allocate at least 5 percent of gross receipts from alcohol sales for law enforcement and at least 7 percent of gross receipts for the treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse.

What now for tax revenue, law enforcement?

And county managers in Jackson and Henderson counties are generally taking a wait-and-see approach to what broader alcohols sales will mean for tax revenues and law enforcement.

“Many businesses already have the exception to sell alcohol,” said Jackson County manager Chuck Wooten, referring to a county loophole that allows private clubs to sale of alcoholic beverages. “The real intent was to level the playing field and give other businesses the opportunity to sell and serve alcohol.”

For now, Wooten said he isn’t expecting a significant tax revenue windfall, but he projects some long-term economic benefits.

“It may encourage development outside of municipalities that would add to our tax base and the establishment of businesses that would be assets to the county,” he said.

And, Wooten doesn’t anticipate any major modifications to the county budget for law enforcement, though concerns have already been raised about the need for more.

“We’ll have to learn as we go along,” he said.

Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt echoes the concern about how increased alcohol sales may pose a further strain on law enforcement.

“Alcohol does have an impact on crime – especially driving infractions,” he said.

Wyatt is also uncertain about the impact on the county coffers.

“It will be at least a year before we get a feeling for what tax revenue will be,” he said. “We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

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About the Author

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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