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Voters toast Sunday sales in Oxford referendum

Nearly 2,700 pick a side in alcohol purchase question

Mellow Mushroom beer

Mellow Mushroom waitress Brianna Wilson serves up a draft beer Tuesday afternoon. Oxford voters cast ballots on Tuesday to decide whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales or not.

OXFORD — Oxford voters on Tuesday chose to give the City Council the power to authorize the sale of alcohol on Sundays by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

Unofficial returns in Tuesday's referendum on Sunday sales showed “Yes” with 1,727 votes to allow the City Council to approve Sunday sales, 956 for “no.” Provisional ballots remained to be counted, but there were only 13 of those. Once the results are official, the City Council can vote to allow Sunday sales during a regular meeting, if it so chooses. 

Terry Phillis, owner of the Mellow Mushroom, has long campaigned to allow Sunday sales in the city. He said Tuesday night after the vote by phone that he was glad to see the city let its residents decide for themselves. There had been hesitation to make a move on the issue for years, he explained, at least partially due to vocal opposition. Phillis said that opposition may not have proven to represent the will of the city at large. 

“I welcome the opportunity to show the people of Oxford that we can be responsible servers, and show that the people of this city can be responsible customers,” Phillis said. 

C. O. Grinstead, pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Oxford, said by phone after the vote that he would have liked to see results go in the other direction. He said he believed the city would see an increase in crime, though Grinstead — chaplain of the Oxford Police Department — said he appreciated the Police Department’s dedication to enforcing the law. He was glad that residents were given the opportunity to vote, regardless of the result.

“I’m happy that we can do what we feel needs to be done, and I’m glad for Oxford, Alabama,” Grinstead said. “Obviously, I wish the decision had gone in the other direction, but I love the people of Oxford and I look forward to the coming days.”

Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis said in June that the city hasn’t seen an increase in criminal activity or sales tax revenue since it authorized Sunday sales in 2013. He did say, however, that the city had seen restaurant development that he believed was tied to the legalization of Sunday sales. 

Cory Salley, Anniston’s chief financial officer, said last week that the city hadn’t seen any obvious change in tax revenue after it legalized Sunday sales, also in 2013. 

Patrick McWhorter, a lobbyist for the Alabama Grocers Association, was at Oxford City Hall while votes were brought in. He said the impact on the city’s revenue will be based on more than just alcohol sales; he said that 21 percent of all grocery sales happen on Sundays now, and Oxford could lose those grocery sales to Anniston if people want to buy alcohol, too. 

“People can drive across the interstate and go to a store in Anniston,” McWhorter said. “We don't lose a $10 bottle of wine, we lose a $200 cart of groceries.”

Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard said she would have liked to see more of a turnout for the vote, and encouraged more people to register as voters.

“I just hope people will realize how easy it is to get registered to vote and participate in our next election,” Hubbard said. 

Tuesday’s turnout was better than might have been predicted, though. City Clerk Alan Atkinson said last week that Oxford has about 13,000 registered voters in residence. There were about 2,683 votes between the city’s six polling locations and absentee ballots (still excluding provisional ballots) so the city saw a turnout of about 20 percent of its voting population.

Nearby cities haven’t seen much voter turnout in other Sunday sales voting; about 5 percent of voters in Margaret, a city in St. Clair County, turned out in 2016, and a vote in Odenville in 2017 drew just over 10 percent of registered voters, according to reports from the St. Clair Times. 

The referendum marked what could be the end of a lengthy debate in the city about allowing Sunday sales. 

The City Council held a public forum in May last year to solicit opinions from residents. The event drew about 130 people, a mix of business owners and residents. Opinions seemed mixed, rather than leaning toward a majority opinion, and the City Council took no action at the time. 

Hubbard reintroduced the topic at a City Council meeting in March, proposing that the city ask legislators for the right to hold a vote. The motion passed 3-2, with council members Steven Waits, Phil Gardner and Hubbard in favor and council members Chris Spurlin and Mike Henderson against. 

Visitors interviewed at Freedom Fest, the city’s July 4 celebration, seemed to base opposition to Sunday sales on a religious perspective, while those in favor cited tax money flowing into Anniston, where Sunday sales are legal. 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.