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Sunday, September 21, 2014, 9:38 p.m.
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Wet forecast?

Group pushing for Faulkner County voters to decide future of area’s liquor sales

By Tammy Keith

This article was published June 5, 2014 at 8:09 a.m.

a-woman-who-is-an-employee-of-national-ballot-access-and-declined-to-give-her-name-mans-a-table-outside-walgreens-on-oak-street-in-downtown-conway-she-was-gathering-signatures-for-the-our-community-our-dollars-campaign-which-seeks-about-25000-signatures-in-faulkner-county-to-get-the-wet-dry-issue-on-the-nov-4-ballot-the-decline-to-sign-campaign-is-working-against-the-effort

A woman who is an employee of National Ballot Access and declined to give her name mans a table outside Walgreens on Oak Street in downtown Conway. She was gathering signatures for the Our Community, Our Dollars campaign, which seeks about 25,000 signatures in Faulkner County to get the wet-dry issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. The Decline to Sign Campaign is working against the effort.

Brittany Hicks of Conway stopped to write her name on the petition at the table set up outside the doors of Walgreens on Oak Street.

“I just think it’s time for Faulkner County to become wet, so I’m ready to sign,” the 28-year-old said.

Our Community, Our Dollars is sponsoring a petition drive in Faulkner County to put the wet/dry issue on the Nov. 4 general election ballot for the county’s residents.

The group hired National Ballot Access to get the required 38 percent of registered voters in the county, or about 25,000.

According to the Faulkner County Clerk’s Office, the county has 65,863 registered voters.

Polly Martin of Conway, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, is helping with the campaign. She’s treasurer of Our Community, Our Dollars.

“My members want it because … more than anything — they want to know if their customers want it. So, let’s put it on the ballot and see,” Martin said. “I think that’s the main issue — let’s put it out there and see if they want it. If they want it, great. If they don’t want it, that’s great, too.”

Martin said that in addition to grocery stores in the association, “I do have many convenience stores that are members, and they all would like to be able to sell as much product as is available to sell.”

Jay Allen of northwest Arkansas, president of Our Community, Our Dollars, is a retired Walmart executive and business consultant.

Petitions also are being circulated in Saline and Craighead counties.

Natalie Ghidotti of Little Rock, spokeswoman for the campaign, said she doesn’t know how many people have signed the petition to date. The deadline is July 7.

“The NBA folks running the campaign have been telling us it’s definitely steady in terms of people signing,” she said.

Ghidotti said the canvassers will stay out of Mayflower and Vilonia out of respect for people trying to clean up after the April tornado.

“Our biggest thing for right now is that we are very focused on just the democracy piece of this, giving people the opportunity to vote on this in November, because they haven’t been able to vote in decades.

“Whether people vote yes or no, at least they have the opportunity to vote,” Ghidotti said.

Brad Lacy, president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corp., said his understanding is that the last wet-dry vote in Faulkner County was 1976.

Several restaurants in Faulkner County serve alcohol, but they must do so as private clubs.

Mike’s Place Restaurant, which opened more than eight years ago in downtown Conway, was the “first since 1943,” when the county was voted dry, to get a private-club license, owner Mike Coats said.

“I never believed it was OK to have a country club that, with a certain amount of money, everything was legal, but for other people it wasn’t.”

Coats said he is “neutral” on the wet-dry issue. “I don’t have a big opinion on it,” he said.

Coats said a legislator friend in another county called him and said if Faulkner County becomes wet, it will hurt Coats’ business.

“I don’t think it does anything to my business,” he said. The ones affected would be liquor stores in nearby counties, he said.

“Right now, it’s pretty comfortable in Conway; we’re pretty comfortable right now. We’re sort of neutral on this issue.”

Lacy said he doesn’t anticipate either the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce or Conway Development Corp. taking a position on it.

The chamber and CDC were “strongly in favor” of the private-club legislation, he said.

“We absolutely supported the private-club legislation, because we felt it was imperative to building our retail base and downtown area up, and I think it did that,” he said.

“Throughout that process, one argument was that it was circumventing the will of the people and the will of the people was that this was a dry county,” he said.

Lacy said his personal feeling is “people have a right to vote on anything that is important. This is America.”

Martin said she supports having the county become wet. She said she and her husband recently had out-of-state guests, and the guests suggested stopping at a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine after dinner.

“I started laughing and said, ‘Well, that’s 30 minutes away,’” Martin said. “They just couldn’t believe it with Conway as progressive as it is.”

A campaign in opposition of placing the initiative on the ballot is called Decline to Sign, paid for by the They Win, You Lose Committee, with a Benton Post Office box. M.F. Dillard is the chairwoman.

One of its newspaper advertisements lists arguments that the lion’s share of money from alcohol sales will go to corporate offices of Walmart, Kum & Go and Kroger, not the community. The ad contends that crime will increase as well as related law-enforcement costs, including costs to the jail. Another argument by the Decline to Sign group is that college and high school students will have easier access to alcohol, resulting in binge drinking, underage drinking and injuries.

Both Martin and Ghidotti said they expected it.

“I think it’s a shame that anybody, anybody, would encourage someone not to have the right to voice their opinion,” Martin said. “That they’d say don’t sign it [the petition] because we don’t want anyone to be able to voice their opinion. We did it on gay marriage; we did it on marijuana; we did it on other ballot initiatives.

“Apparently, this is not something they want people to be able to speak about. I feel very strong that hushing my voice on a voting issue isn’t right; it’s not America,” Martin said.

She said some churches, even though their stance is against alcohol, agree that the issue should be put to a vote, Martin said.

“If it makes it to the ballot, I think we’ll see even more opposition,” she said. Churches can do a lot of talking, but they can’t fund anything; funding comes from other liquor stores who don’t want the competition.

“Competition’s a good thing for the consumer. That’s what we want, the best for our consumers,” Martin said.

A statewide campaign is underway to get the alcohol issue on the November ballot.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel on May 19 approved the text and ballot title for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for the manufacture, sale, distribution and transportation of alcohol throughout the state. For the constitutional amendment to appear on the November ballot, supporters must gather 78,133 signatures by the July 7 deadline.

A spokesman for the Alcohol Beverage Control Board said Friday that 37 counties are dry in Arkansas.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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