Clark, Boone Counties Gear Up for Liquor Sales

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 12:00 am  

For a guy who "got chewed out both ways" because he remained neutral on the question of whether his county should vote itself "wet," Clark County Judge Ron Daniell seems to have given quite a lot of thought to the most promising location for a liquor store: Exit 78 on Interstate 30 at Caddo Valley.

"If I was going to put one, that's what I'd be looking at," Daniell said last week. "You'd get your Oaklawn traffic going there. You'd get your Lake DeGray traffic in the summertime. Stop and get tuned up."

It would be, he said, the only liquor store in the 110-mile stretch of I-30 between the Pulaski County line at Alexander and the outskirts of Texarkana in Miller County.

Proponents of a wet Clark County campaigned on the idea that a dearth of alcohol was working against the ½-percent countywide sales tax voters adopted for economic development efforts in 2007, Daniell said.

Mark Hughes has also given a lot of thought to the future liquor-buying habits of residents of Clark County, especially those in Arkadelphia, where some people think Hughes' family business is literally called First Chance Liquor.

It's really Ship 'n Shore Liquor Mart on Highway 7, just inside Garland County. (See sidebar here.) For 25 years, Ship 'n Shore has been the closest package store to Arkadelphia and to parts of dry Hot Spring County, with as much as 65 percent of its business coming from across the county line, Hughes said.

The liquor business is already more competitive and less profitable than most people think, Hughes complained last week. "This right here," the vote to make Clark County wet, "will probably be what puts the fork in me," he said.

Residents of both Clark County in southwest Arkansas and Boone County on the Missouri line voted Nov. 2 to permit the regulated sale of alcoholic beverages to the public, bringing the number of wet counties in the state to 35. Most of the dry counties - 40 after the loss of Clark and Boone - have liquor available by the glass at permitted private clubs, but the recent votes mean the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will be able to issue permits in those two counties for all kinds of alcohol sales allowed by state law.

Permits
Both countywide elections were decisive but not blow-outs: 56 percent of Clark County voters favored alcohol sales, while 53 percent voted yes in Boone County, where a private citizen has contested the results.

Considerable support for going wet was a foregone conclusion: Since 1995, Arkansas law has required at least 38 percent of registered voters in a county to sign a petition before the question of switching from dry to wet or wet to dry can even be placed on the ballot. All three counties in which that hurdle has been overcome have gone on to vote themselves wet.

Assuming the decision of the majority of voters is final, permits to sell beer and small-farm wines for consumption off-premises could be granted as early as January to grocery stores, convenience stores and other existing establishments that file applications pronto and don't draw opposition from local officials, according to Milton R. Lueken, an attorney with the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division. There is no limit on the number of off-premises beer and wine permits that can be issued in a wet county.

But it will be several months before permits allowing the sale of hard liquor, what the law calls "spirituous" beverages, will be issued in either county, ABC General Counsel Don Bennett said. And it will be even longer and require at least one more election before restaurants that aren't private clubs can apply for permits to sell alcohol by the glass. Those local-option by-the-glass elections can be initiated countywide by the quorum court, or local city councils in wet counties can call for a vote.

Marion County, immediately east of Boone County on the Missouri border, voted itself wet in November 2006. Its first liquor store permit was granted to Rich's Package Store in Bull Shoals on July 1, 2007, and opened later that month.

Under state law, the number of liquor stores that can be permitted in a county is limited to one for every 4,000 residents. "So that's the first thing we have to do is find out the 2010 population of Clark and Boone counties," Bennett said.

The Census State Data Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock expects to have final numbers by Dec. 31, Bennett said, and those numbers will determine the maximum number of permits the ABC can grant in Boone and Clark counties. Boone County Judge Mike Moore said he was expecting eight or nine permits in his county; Clark County is likely to get five or six, according to Judge Daniell.

(New census numbers could also create the potential for new liquor licenses in other wet counties whose populations have grown sufficiently during the past decade, Bennett said. State law does not require the ABC to reduce the number of liquor stores in counties with shrinking populations, he said.)

After the number of available permits is determined, the ABC will open a 60-day window for accepting applications from wannabe liquor store operators. They have to be wannabes because state law strictly forbids any person, firm or corporation from owning even a minority interest in more than one liquor store. That's why even Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has only one liquor store in Arkansas, next door to its Sam's Club store on the wet Washington County side of Springdale.

After the application deadline passes, the ABC will conduct a drawing to determine the order in which applications will be considered. There is no first-come, first-served advantage, Bennett said. The applications will be considered in order on their own merit, with the ABC continuing to hear applications until all available liquor store permits are granted.

Economic Development
The introduction of widespread alcohol sales in Clark and Boone counties will undoubtedly put the hurt on Mark Hughes' Ship 'n Shore Liquor Mart south of Hot Springs and LJ's Liquor, which has been open in the western Marion County hamlet of Pyatt for less than a year and a half.

But does going wet actually lead to economic development, as backers in Clark County hope?

"I don't know whether it will help or not," Clark County Judge Daniell said. "I guess we'll see what happens."

What's happened in Marion County since it went wet four years ago might not be the best predictor. County Judge James Giles did not return calls seeking comment, but the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration's records indicate that countywide sales tax receipts have been relatively stable. The county collected $1.39 million in 2006, slumping slightly in 2007 to rebound to $1.43 million in 2008 and then slump again in 2009.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has gone through the roof.

The unemployment rate in Marion County averaged 5.2 percent in 2006, the year of its dry-to-wet vote, and 5.3 percent the following year. By the end of 2008, as the Great Recession neared its peak, unemployment was above 10 percent in the county and was 9.5 percent as of September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There does not seem to be a wet or dry pattern to prosperity. The county with the highest unemployment rate as of September, Arkansas County with 16 percent of its work force idled, is a wet county. But so are Carroll and Miller counties, which were tied for the lowest unemployment rate of 5.4 percent.

And liquor stores themselves are not major employers. If new competitors in Clark County do put a fork in the Ship 'n Shore Liquor Mart, only three people will be out of work: Mark Hughes, his brother, Rocky Hughes, and their 75-year-old mother, permit holder Adgie Hughes.

"We're just old dinosaurs, honey. We're just burned out." Mark Hughes said. "We'll just be fossils here in a year or two."

 

 

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