Cashing in: Randolph County hopes for windfall from changing laws
by Brian Anderson
Nov 18, 2013 | 3869 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ashley Terry stocks liquor shelves at Quality Beverage Shop in Roanoke. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Ashley Terry stocks liquor shelves at Quality Beverage Shop in Roanoke. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Third in a four-part series on changing attitudes to alcohol in Alabama.

ROANOKE — Not too long after opening up in April, Roy Terry said the Quality Beverage Shop received its first astonished customer.

An 87-year-old woman who was a lifelong resident of Randolph County came in to marvel at the rows of bottled wine and hard alcohol. Even though the woman, who told Terry she didn’t drink, bought nothing, it was the most memorable encounter Terry said he’s had at the county’s first legal liquor store.

“She said she just wanted to see a liquor store in Randolph County,” Terry said. “She didn’t think it would happen before she died.”

But residents don’t have to go to Roanoke’s first liquor store on U.S. 431 to stand in amazement at legal alcohol sale in Randolph County. It’s almost everywhere now. It’s in the aisles of Walmart and the Piggly Wiggly in downtown Roanoke and Wedowee, in coolers in convenience stores along the highways, and behind the bars at restaurants.

Randolph County was one of two counties in Alabama still outlawing alcohol sales last November when residents elected to go wet by a vote of 5,363 to 4,574, thereby letting alcohol flow freely in the rural county of 22,000 on the Georgia border. Local ordinances regulating zoning and hours for sales passed in March, making the county the 66th out of 67 in Alabama to legalize some form of alcohol sales.

In lieu of

Asking residents in Randolph County why they support or oppose alcohol sales typically ends up getting back to the same answer: money.

And both sides may have a valid point.

Part 1 - Good Book vs. Good Time | Part 2 - Alabama's Last Dry Soil
Part 3 - A County Cashes In | Part 4 - Shift to Sunday Sales

The push for alcohol sales in the county started with the group Keep Dollars in Randolph County, co-chaired by Terry. The argument of the group was simple: alcohol bought by residents in Randolph County was simply going to line the pockets of surrounding counties. A study put together by the group during its campaign last year said the county could stand to gain $340,000 annually from alcohol sales alone.

That’s a significant number, because without selling a single drop of liquor, Randolph County was already receiving $305,000 from alcohol sales in the form of “in-lieu-of” tax, money distributed by the state to dry counties in Alabama.

The group Randolph Citizens For Truth, however, weren’t having any of the study conducted by Keep Dollars. Ken Nix, a Roanoke resident who supported keeping the county dry, said roughly $10 million dollars in alcohol revenue would have to be achieved every year in order to make up for the loss of state tax generated from not selling alcohol. He compared that number to the $1.7 million sold in neighboring Chambers County the previous year, a county twice the size of Randolph.

The group might have been right. According to Randolph County Administrator Cindy Arrington, the county’s total revenue from alcohol sales in the 2012-13 budget year was almost $180,000 short of the in-lieu-of tax money the county had received for years.

For the county’s most recent budget put together in October, Arrington said the County Commission was able to fill the gap in tax dollars from the general fund, but going forward, she doesn’t know where that lost revenue will come from.

“I don’t see how we’re going to make it up,” Arrington said. “There aren’t enough places in the county that sell alcohol, so I don’t see that number rising.”

But Ron Young, the co-chairman of the group Keep Dollars in Randolph County, said it’s not time for the county to panic. For one thing, the revenue represents only six months of alcohol sales, not a whole year. And as a real estate agent, he also believes that the county has only begun to see the economic impact alcohol sales can have in the rural parts of the county near Lake Wedowee, a popular tourist destination.

“I think that’s only going to grow in time,” Young said.

In the cities of Randolph County, however, six months of alcohol sales already have been an unqualified success.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in money,” said Tim Coe, mayor of Wedowee, Randolph’s county seat. “From my understanding, all the cities have seen an increase.”

It’s an increase of more than double the amount they used to receive from the county for its share of in-lieu of money, Coe said. In the last dry fiscal year for the city of fewer than 1,000 residents, Wedowee received just a $5,000 cut of the county’s in-lieu-of money. Six months of alcohol sales have already yielded more than $12,000.

“We have about seven or eight alcohol licenses,” Coe said. “And we got a couple distributors and one liquor store.”

Coe said with the additional revenue, the Wedowee Town Council was able to help out the county-run economic board, which is no longer able to use tobacco tax money for salaried positions. Coe said the council gave the board 10 percent of its alcohol revenue.

Roanoke’s mayor, Mike Fisher, said he didn’t know the exact numbers the city has received since going wet, but with 12 alcohol licenses, the city has done great business with legal liquor sales.

“The biggest thing has been Walmart,” Fisher said. “That’s our biggest grocery store, and now they’re selling beer. That’s brought in a lot of money.”

Protests minimal

When Roy Terry said he began campaigning to go wet last year, it didn’t seem like the push for alcohol sales would be successful. The county had voted to remain dry less than a decade ago, mostly with support from residents living outside the county’s cities.

But going wet in Roanoke was impossible under the law. When legislation passed in 2009 lowering the amount of residents a city needed in order to vote to go wet, state Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, made municipalities in Randolph and Clay counties an exception to the law. It didn’t matter how many Roanoke residents wanted alcohol sales.

Several attempts by The Star to reach Laird were unsuccessful, but he had previously told a reporter he made Randolph County cities exempt from the law to protect the interest of the whole county. The representative said if Roanoke was allowed to vote wet, it was unlikely the county would also vote to go wet. The law would likely give Roanoke a monopoly on alcohol sales in the county.

“I was ready to take him to court,” said Stanley Allen, a Roanoke man who tried to petition for the city to go wet in 2010, with no success. “He was taking away our rights to vote.”

Laird’s addition to the law excluding Randolph and Clay cities from being allowed to vote to go wet is currently being challenged in court, but in the meantime, it left Roanoke out to dry — literally in the case of alcohol sales.

“People told us there was no way we were going to get the whole county to go wet,” Terry said. “But I think in the end, the law actually kind of worked out best for the whole county in a funny way.”

Like a lot of rural counties in Alabama, a strong religious background kept Prohibition alive in Randolph County for decades after nationwide repeal. And while Ron Young said the religious opposition to alcohol was fierce last November when the county made the push for going wet, things have largely returned to normal.

“Just the other day, I saw a pastor who was set against us in a restaurant that serves alcohol,” Young said. “I didn’t even think anything of it.”

There are still some in the community who see the presence of legal alcohol sales as a detriment to society. Fisher said that at City Hall, he still gets calls from residents asking him and the City Council to block businesses petitioning for business licenses.

“One day someone called me upset because a Budweiser truck parked in front of a church downtown,” Fisher said. “They said that wasn’t right, but there’s not much we can do about that.”

The early numbers from the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office suggest alcohol hasn’t had much of an effect on crime. Randolph County Sheriff David Cofield said while his office saw driving under the influence arrests increase over the last six months, he said he thinks that has more to do with the summer tourism crowd than any long term trend.

“They tend to go up in the summer anyway,” he said. “I couldn’t say if alcohol sales has anything to do with it.”

And despite some protest from the religious community, businesses that sell alcohol said they haven’t seen a drop in their regular clientele because of adding beer and liquor to the menu. Jose Velazquez, the manager at Roanoke’s La Herradura Mexican restaurant, said little has changed, business-wise.

“Roanoke is a small city and we’ve been in the community for 20 years,” Velazquez said. “Some people come in and drink now, and some people don’t.”

Allen, who fought for four years for his right to buy alcohol in the county, said he’s happy the struggle, for now, seems to be over.

“I’m glad I can relax about it now,” he said, before adding, “with a beer.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.

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