Opponents are determined to keep this dry city wholesome and family-friendly
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
ASHEBORO – Home of the N.C. Zoo and collegiate baseball’s Copperheads, this Randolph County city also bears another distinction – largest Tar Heel municipality without alcohol sales – a unique honor that many church leaders, health advocates and other liquor opponents hope to maintain well past July 29.
That’s the date that registered voters – 11,693 of them as of this week – can go to the polls to decide if Asheboro will open the door to the sale of malt beverages, the sale of fortified wine, the operation of ABC stores and the sale of mixed beverages.
To say the issue is contentious is a bit of an understatement. Voters said no, by an average of about 400 votes, to all four issues in May 1994; but last summer, some members of the Asheboro City Council tried unsuccessfully to get state legislation that would allow liquor by the drink there without a referendum. Then, on May 27, the Council voted 4-3 to ask the Board of Elections for the July 29 vote.
“It is a very divisive and much debated issue in our city,” said the Rev. Johnny Henderson, pastor of Cross Road Baptist Church. “However, we believe that distinctive gives us a uniqueness that is wholesome and family friendly. We want our city to be as drug-free as possible and alcohol is America’s most abused drug.”
Henderson said Citizens For A Safe and Healthy Asheboro has established an office downtown and is meeting with pastors and other community leaders to educate them on the issue. He said some 50 churches in and around Asheboro are involved.
Dr. John Rogers, pastor of First Baptist of Asheboro, challenged the City Council on May 8 to examine the issue based on evidence and not “pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”
“I have yet to hear any leader promoting alcohol sales put forth any clear and concise data on how this will benefit the city,” Rogers said. “In my research, I have not been able to discover any evidence which supports the sale of alcohol and increasing the number of outlets as being a key to economic success for a city. What I have discovered is tons of information on the negative impact alcohol has – from negative cost factors to business, negative impact on families, an increase in violent crime, physical as well as sexual abuse, and an increase in the number of problem drinkers.”
Those problems aren’t among the talking points for the Committee for the Future of Asheboro, a group led by attorney father-daughter team Steve and Brooke Schmidly and including 39 committee members, a so-called “who’s who of business and community leaders”. Instead, the Schmidlys and their group are claiming that Asheboro is losing economic development to nearby communities that offer alcohol sales.
According to a February article in The Business Journal, City Councilman Walker Moffitt went so far as to say that “the economic viability of Asheboro and this county might just ride on liquor by the drink.”
What he and others must not realize is that research shows that for every one dollar generated in tax revenue from alcohol sales in North Carolina, there is a corresponding expenditure of $21.42 due to the cost of alcohol related problems. (Alcohol/Drug Council of North Carolina, 1/2/2002).
Fellow councilman Eddie Burks, who voted against the referendum, hasn’t been taken in by promises of economic gain.
After hearing plenty of pro-alcohol rhetoric, Burks told the Asheboro Courier-Tribune when he was running for office in 2005 that he had done a bit of his own research, making phone calls to people in similar size cities where alcohol sales had been approved.
“I spoke with people in Lexington, Thomasville, Shelby and Sanford. … Each person with whom I spoke are drinkers and supportive of alcohol sales in their cities. None could confirm that any of the benefits and amenities promised to their cities had come to fruition,” he told the newspaper. “There were few if any chain restaurants built nor the hotel with convention facilities.”
“Alcohol has a long history of being detrimental to families and continues to be such,” Burks wrote in his candidate questionnaire. “I cannot see that the pros of some tax revenue will outweigh the cons of hurting our families.”
He said Thursday that his opinion hasn’t changed over the past three years. He joined Linda Carter and Archie Priest to oppose the referendum, while Talmadge Baker, David Smith, Keith Crisco and Moffitt voted for the special election.
Rev. Rogers told the City Council that, contrary to boosting Asheboro’s budget, adding alcohol outlets will increase three other things: “the wealth of those who sell it; the convenience of those who drink; and the economic and social cost to businesses and families stemming from alcohol abuse.”
He said he was especially disturbed to see on the list of alcohol supporters, the names of three Randolph Hospital leaders.
“When I read the Executive Summary of the Randolph County Community Health Assessment done in Randolph County supported by Randolph Hospital and completed in 2005, I discover listed as the number one health problem in our county – alcohol and drug addiction,” Rogers said, pointing out that the assessment called for a focus group specifically aimed at “reducing substance abuse.”
“I must admit I m confused when there is a work group appointed by our health officials charged to reduce substance abuse … yet some of our leading health officials want to increase the availability of alcohol,” Rogers said. “How do you work to reduce alcohol abuse while at the same time supporting increasing the availability of alcohol?”
Rogers was far from alone in questioning the council’s wisdom in pushing for alcohol sales. The majority of the crowd at the May 27 meeting, estimated by Burks at around 300, indicated by a show of hands that they opposed the vote.
After it was clear that the council would approve the referendum, Burks made a motion to push back the date at least four weeks to give residents time to get the facts about the issue. But again, the decision was 4-3 to force a July vote.
While opponents are now getting their efforts under way, those pushing for alcohol had apparently begun their campaign months ago, even courting the faith community late last year. According to The Business Journal, Crisco put together an “ad hoc group of private-sector CEOs and influential ministers,” that began discussing the alcohol issue.
Rogers, one of four ministers tapped for the talks, said the pastors listened to Crisco tell why he thought alcohol would be good for Asheboro, but they were more interested in a second meeting, called in January, when he said ministers talked about ways the faith community, business community and government could work together for the good of the city. He said task groups were formed and he wrote an op-ed article published in The Business Journal touting the benefits of the cooperative effort, only to be disappointed when Crisco apparently lost interest.
“You never called the third meeting as promised to hear reports from the people you asked to gather information,” Rogers said. “… Is this because you realized we ministers would not budge from our core values concerning the sale of alcohol?”
“To me it feels like maybe your purpose in calling us together was only an attempt to lobby us to support alcohol sales and when you realized we stay true to our values, there was no further interest in meeting with us,” he concluded.
Burks expects alcohol proponents to show plenty of interest and spend plenty of money to sway Asheboro voters between now and July 29.
“My fear is that the proponents have such deep pockets,” said Burks, who said he wouldn’t be surprised to see 8,000 people show up at the polls.
Director of Elections Patsy Foscue said her office had been receiving a higher than usual number of inquiries and voter registrations as people prepare for the vote. Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Early voting will be at the Board of Elections office and the Randolph County Office Building. Deadline to register to vote is July 3.