A legislative attempt to make it easier to sell liquor by-the-drink in dry counties was held up on Wednesday, in part because it might still be too restrictive for some tastes.
Rep. Jay Bradford, D-White Hall, and other supporters said Jonesboro, Conway and Bentonville need House Bill 1637 to recruit business and industry. But Bradford asked House Rules Committee chairman Mary Ann Salmon, D-North Little Rock, to delay committee action on his bill while he tried to work out questions posed by Rep. Terry A. McMellon, D-Waldron.
McMellon was concerned that small counties wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of the bill, which would lower the required number of voter signatures needed for a local option election on alcohol sales in hotels, restaurants and large public venues.
Bradford’s bill, as amended, supplements the existing local option law to allow any “dry county, as well as any city having a population of over 20,000” to conduct an election if 15 percent of the registered voters sign a petition. Its popular support seems to come mainly from Conway, the seat of dry Faulkner County.
Opponents included the Arkansas Faith and Religious Council and Families First Foundation, as well as Gordon Dondek, executive vice president of Dixie Restaurants Inc., operators of the Dixie Cafe chain.
Larry Page, representing Arkansas Faith and Religious Council, complained that Bradford’s bill made it easier to go from dry to wet than from wet to dry.
Under the current law, a city can go wet only if the entire county also goes wet, thus allowing all forms of alcohol sales. That requires a petition signed by 38 percent of a county’s registered voters, and a similar number of voters must sign a petition before a vote to take a township dry.
Bradford’s bill, however, would allow a city to return to dry status using the same 15 percent petition.
Bradford said his bill was “more restrictive than the existing law because if a county goes wet, they get soft liquors, beer, wine and package stores,” Bradford said. “This only gives a mixed-drink permit to restaurants or hotels of a certain size in counties or cities of more than 20,000 people.”
But Scott County, which McMellon represents, has less than 10,000 people, and McMellon thought the bill might leave counties of less than 20,000 residents out in the cold. He objected to a provision that the county pay for all local option elections.
Bradford conceded the latter point as a weakness, but maintained that counties of any population size would only need to collect signatures from 15 percent of their registered voters to force a countywide local option election.
Conway is harmed by the current law, said Brad Lacy, director of economic development for the Conway Development Corp. He said being in a dry county makes it difficult to recruit high-paying jobs and companies to the city.
“One of the things we come in contact with is companies that won’t locate here because they can’t get a glass of wine with dinner and they can’t recruit people,” Lacy told the committee.
After the meeting, he said Conway competes regionally with Jackson, Tenn.; Norman, Okla.; and Hattiesburg, Miss. And sometimes, the fact that those cities have restaurants that serve alcohol is the clincher in a decision to locate out of Arkansas.
“If we’re trying to recruit the types of jobs that we say we’re trying to recruit, high paying, technical jobs that require a higher level of education, we have to understand that they might want to drink a beer after work,” Lacy said. “It’s the type of thing that corporate executives find odd when they get to Arkansas. They have no idea what a wet or dry county is.”
Fayetteville and Little Rock are the only two cities in Arkansas unaffected by the dry-county handicap, Lacy said.
“Acxiom is building a $25 million office building in the River Market for a reason, and it’s to recruit the type of individuals that drive their business,” he said. “It’s unfortunate if we only have two environments like that in our state in which to recruit white-collar jobs.”
Jerry Adams, community relations leader for Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock, agreed.
“We recruit aggressively to Arkansas, and we all know that is hard,” he told the committee. “This is a hospitality issue, primarily.”
Adams said recruitment to the company’s Conway facilities would be eased if Bradford’s bill became law.
When Rep. Ken Cowling, D-Ashdown, pressed Lacy for names of companies that have located elsewhere because of the alcohol issue, Lacy said he often doesn’t learn the company names because consultants nix Conway before the process gets that far.
“A consultant we hired out of New York said that it is a problem,” Lacy said.
Dondek said Dixie Cafe’s objection to the bill was purely competitive. The company’s decision to locate many of its 22 stores in dry counties was based on the “reasonable assumption” that the local-option laws would remain unchanged.
“Take Conway. You know that Applebee’s will not move next door in a small market. If a competitor comes in, you’re screwed,” Dondek said. “We made an investment of millions of dollars on that assumption, and we would not make that decision if 1637 was in place.”