by Jim Cox
A petition calling for a wet/dry vote for the City of Lancaster has been floating around town for several weeks.
The petition does not pertainto the county. It only applies to the city. It calls for the wet/dry issue to be placed on the ballot for the voters of the city to decide. If successful, it would allow the sale of package liquors, including hard liquor, wine and other alcoholic beverages to be sold by the drink or by the package within the city limits.
Just last week the petition appeared at several businesses in the city that allow petitions in their establishments–John Smith’s on the Square, Quick Stop on Danville Street, the Baker Street Mini Mart, VIP Express and Mariachi’s on Stanford Street.
Economic Development Director Nathan Mick has helped several local supporters facilitate the circulation of the petition.
“My job is to bring jobs into the community,” he said.
“There are things that are out there that we have to put onthe table to move this community forward and local option is one of those issues. Without putting that issue on the table ties my hand behind my back.”
Mick says that he is simply supporting voters having a choice on the issue. “People have the choice,” he said. “If they want to vote no on the issue, they can vote no. But I think it is up to the voters to decide this.
“I don’t think it is an issue about alcohol,” he added. “I think it is an issue about growth and moving the community forward.”
At the fiscal court’s regular monthly meeting Monday morning, Mick gave an update of his activity to the magistrates. In the six months that he has been economic director he has shown the spec building in the industrial park fifthteen times and has spoken with numerous prospects about establishing businesses and restaurants here.
During his report, he was asked what the single biggest problem that he has confronted in talking to people interested in bringing economic development to the county.
One of the biggest challenges is not being located on a federal truck route or an interstate connection, he said. But he also said an obstacle for developing the industrial park and for establishing other businesses is the sale of alcohol.
The renovation of the Grand Theater is one of the many projects in which Mick is involved. It is one of the reasons, he came to Lancaster, he said.
For the theater to be successful, it has to have a regional draw, he said. It needs to attract people from Danville, Stanford, Somerset, Nicholasville and
Richmond and to do that an additional foundation needs to be built around the theater to support it.
When people come to the Grand Theater, they want to have a nice meal at a restaurant before a performance. But for the restaurant to be successful it must be able to serve alcohol, he said.
When he presents the Grand Theater to potential restaurant developers, their eyes light up when they walk into the building.
They see the vision for where the project is going and how it ties into the total growth strategy of the community, he said.
“They are very impressed to see where we are going with it. They get it. But they already know the community is dry or once we discuss that issue a restaurant will eliminate us from consideration,” he said. “It is easier to sustain a business or restaurant when you have that local option.”
Mick does not want to discredit any existing restuarants in the community.
“Many wonderful restaurants are here,” he said. “I think people would like additional choices and existing restaurants maybe interested in options for growth as well.”
Bob Noe, who has been heavily involved in economic development of the community understands the argument for the sale of alcoholic beverages in the city as a means to advance economic growth.
“I support that argument,” Noe said, “and personally beleive that if I visit a restaurant in nearby cities that sell alcoholic beverages, I cannot be against that situation here.”
Another instance where not having a local option affected a presentation adversely involved a company looking at the industrial park to establish a distribution center that would have employed fifty people.
The industrial park was fairly competitive in the process, he said. The company was on a fact-finding mission, going to various communities.
After two months of negoiations, Mick asked how the presentation went and what could be done better.
The company’s representative told him that they have been the best to work with of the communities they visited and that the company had enjoyed the people they have met in the community.
“That all has been great,” she told him, “but you could give us the spec building and we just would not be able to move here because of the challenges with the amenities that this community have.”
She was talking about local options, he said.
He also pointed out that Lancaster might be able to keep its only full-line grocery store if they were able to sell packaged liquor.
“Having a local option may not be the silver bullet to keep it open, but it will certainly give them an opportunity for new growth,” he said.
Lynn Lizer, one of the owners of Lynco Foods in the Pleasant Retreat Plaza, has been circulating a wet/dry petition for several weeks.
She does not have a petition in the store. As a general rule she does not allow petitions in her place of business feeling that it might put her customers in an awkward position.
But she has asked her family, friends and people she knows to sign it. She has about 50 to 55 signatures. Also all of Lynco’s employees who live in Garrard County have voluntarily signed the petition.
She believes that the sale of package liquors would help keep the store open and generate more revenue for the community as a whole.
Whenever someone goes to Nicholasville to buy liquor, they also pick up food, their gas, hardware supplies and everything else, she explained.
“It has nothing to do with people approving or disapproving of alcohol,” she said. “It’s about the economy in Garrard County.”
The local option issue is a multi-million dollar decision that could impact the county greatly, Mick said.
Just lately a multi-million dollar investment involving a restaurant was interested in establishing in Garrard County but reconsidered once it was realized there was no local option, he said.
And earlier this year at a fiscal court meeting, a Louisville developer, Mike Czerwonka expressed an interest in building a $25 million lodge with restaurants and other facilities on Herrington Lake.
“Is that going to happen?” Mick said. “I don’t know, but I tell you one thing it is contingent on the ability to serve drinks.”
At the time of Czerwonka’s presentation in January, all the magistrates expressed support for the project even though the sale of alcohol could be involved.
Magistrate Ronnie Lane, who says that he has never taken a drink, was 100 percent for the project.
“You cannot go get decent food anywhere– Nicholasville, Danville, Lexinton – but somebody sitting right beside you is drinking. I don’t care. It does not mean I have to. It’s a way of life,” he said.
Magistrate Fred Simpson however was concerned about the spin-offs from the project especially with no planning and zoning in the county.
Presently he is still in favor of growth but worried about the ramification of alcohol sales. “I think it’s a mistake,” he said.
He calls the city’s change in classification as a “stealth campaign” to get alcohol sales in town.
Earlier in the year, the city went from being a “Class 5” city to “Class 4,” which allows the city to carry more buying power and in a better postion for economic development.
A Class 5 city can go “moist,” meaning limited alcohol sales in restaurants seating a minimum of 100 and deriving 75 percent of their sales from food.
Class 4 allows a city to go “wet” meaning also package liquor sales and bars if people bring it to a vote.
In talking to his constituents who he describes as “old school,” most are against the sale of alcohol, he said.
The fiscal court does not have a vote on the issue, Judge-Executive John Wilson said. “It’s up to the people to decide.
“My feeling on the wet/dry issue is that there is not any question that it will lead to growth and change for the City of Lancaster, he said. “The question for the voters is whether or not they want that kind of change.”
Mayor Don Rinthen said his comment is the same as the one he gave at the forum when he was running for office.
“The wet/dry vote or any alcohol vote is a moral decision of the person who is voting,” he said. “It is not for me to vote for them. It’s for them to vote their conscious and their morals if it comes to that point.”
He believes that alcohol sales would be good for the economy of the city.
“Alcohol is an economic factor in any surrounding area that is excelling in economic development,” he said. “The nature of the item is all over Americaand the areas that are wet or moist are proceeding to go forward and other areas are still behind in times.”
Mick has plenty other irons in the fire beside the wet/dry issue.
“I’m not spending a lot of time on it,” he said. “It’s sort of an after-hours project that is simply facilitating people who are interested in distributing petitions.”
“It’s just one piece of the puzzle of the larger strategy to grow Garrard County,” he added. “I just hope the voters would at least put it on the ballot and then decide from there.”
State statutes regulating alcohol sales are complicated and complex. If the city votes to go wet, alcohol sales are limited to the city limits. No alcohol can be sold in the county unless a local option election for the entire county is passed.
State law however provides that if the city is wet, a precinct in the county can hold a local option election but only if it has a USGA golf course, a nationally registered historic house or a vineyard. And then if it passes, alcohol sales can only be sold on those properties and no other place in the precinct.
In other words, with Peninsula Golf Resort located in the Buena Vista precinct, the voters in that precinct once the city goes wet could hold an election for only the golf course to go wet.
Any other place of business or restaurant not connected to the golf course in that precinct could not sell alcohol.
To take it a step further, the proposed lodge on Herrington Lake could not sell alcohol unless it became part of the golf course in some manner.
According to County Clerk Stacy May, the petition for the wet/dry vote for the city would be filed in her office. As she would for candidacy papers, names and address would be checked to make sure they are city residents and valid voters.
For a local option election to be called, 265 valid names would be required. That’s 25% of the number of voters in the last general election. In the 2007 November general election 1,060 people voted in the city.
The election must be set no earlier than 60 days and no later than 90 days after the date of filing the petition with the county clerk.
The county judge-executive actually sets the date of the election.
It cannot be held on the same date of a general election.