By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
RALEIGH – Residents in Kings Mountain, Spruce Pine and Chatham County who want to protect their communities from the increased social problems that accompany liquor by the drink should brace for battle as alcohol issues come to the ballot box over the next few months.
Perhaps nowhere is the matter more contentious than in Kings Mountain where proponents of liquor by the drink may have broken some rules as they pushed to get signatures on a petition to bring about the referendum.
According to Keith Miller, a former Kings Mountain City Councilman who opposes increased alcohol sales, some LBD proponents used deceptive practices to gather signatures, and more than 75 people who signed petitions later asked for their names to be removed.
Miller said some signature seekers showed up at the polls on Nov. 4, 2008, telling voters in line that they needed to sign the petition “to be able to vote.” Although they meant that the signatures would bring about a vote on mixed drinks, Miller said many misunderstood and thought they needed to sign the paper to be able to vote that day in the general election. He said other petitioners persuaded signers that the issue was about the right to vote and convinced them that they needed to sign whether they were for mixed drinks or against, so that they could retain that democratic right.
“My estimation is between 100 and 200 signatures were gathered under misunderstanding or misrepresentation and had the time been allowed for these to be removed, it could have affected the outcome,” said Miller, alluding to the fact that the N.C. Board of Elections certified the petition Jan. 22, some two weeks before the local Board of Elections was expected to act on it. Petition figures reported in the Jan. 9 issue of the local newspaper “The Star” showed 2,271 certified signatures with 80 of those from Gaston County residents who live inside the Kings Mountain city limits. By law, 2,212 signatures (35 percent of the registered voters) were needed to force the referendum.
Doubtful of opportunity for any legal redress, Miller said he and other opponents, organized as Citizens for Safe Progress, are moving on to put together an active get-out-the-vote campaign.
“We will have yard signs available and the amount of advertising we do will depend on funding,” Miller said. “We will have a telephone bank and need volunteers to make calls.”
As they contact voters, LBD opponents will try to shed light on a number of alcohol related issues including false claims that mixed drinks will guarantee that Kings Mountain will attract big name, chain restaurants.
“We’ve got Shelby 10 miles to the west and Gastonia 10 miles to the east, so we’re in the middle of two population centers, and no national restaurant change is going to locate in Kings Mountain unless they already have successful locations there and many chains have policies against having locations so close,” Miller said. “It’s impossible and unreasonable to expect a big restaurant chain to locate in Kings Mountain, and liquor by the drink won’t change that.”
The Cleveland County Board of Elections is expected to set a date for the referendum at its meeting Feb. 4. By law, it must be scheduled between 60 and 120 days of that meeting. Already King’s Mountain has beer and wine sales and an ABC store.
The same is true in Chatham County, where Pittsboro mayor Randy Voller has asked the County Commission to hold a referendum to add liquor-by-the drink. The Rev. Steve Moore, pastor of Emmaus Baptist Church, expects the commission to do so, despite opponents outnumbering LBD enthusiasts some 3-to-1 at a Jan. 26 public hearing.
“The room was full and the majority spoke against having a referendum, but I think their idea is to let the voters of Chatham County decide,” Moore said. “So we’ve got to get ready to fight it.”
About a half dozen pastors were at the hearing and Moore is optimistic that opponents can get out the vote to keep mixed drinks at bay.
“It has been beaten in other counties and it can be beaten here,” Moore said. “Just because the counties around us have it doesn’t mean we have to; let’s be different.”
Moore pointed out that any economic gains associated with alcohol sales are always more than offset by societal costs. In fact, studies show that for every $1 generated in tax revenue for alcohol sales, there is a corresponding expenditure of more than $20 for the costs of alcohol related problems.
“To me, that makes this issue a no-brainer,” Moore said.
The Chatham County commissioners have meetings scheduled Feb. 2, Feb. 4 and Feb. 16. Moore said he anticipates they will vote on whether to hold a referendum at one of these sessions. Agendas were not yet available on the county Web site.
Already, because of special legislative exemptions, liquor by the drink is being sold at at least one Chatham County business, Fearrington House Inn.
Similarly, a special permit approved in 2000 for Grassy Creek Golf and Country Club, has made mixed drinks part of the mix in technically dry Mitchell County, where Spruce Pine is now facing a four-part referendum that could open the door to beer and wine sales (on and off-premise), an ABC store, and the sale of liquor by the drink.
According to the Rev. Matt Mills at Grassy Creek Baptist, proponents of alcohol sales in Spruce Pine say the golf club’s special permit has made it difficult for other businesses which can’t sell alcohol to compete.
“They are crying that this has been unfair competition and that we have to give them the right to sell alcohol,” Mills said. “And of course they are saying that it will help the economy, create jobs and encourage redevelopment… information that we feel is not true.”
Mills said paperwork filed by Partners for Progress shows the group spent more than $7,000 on their petition drive, which garnered some 608 signatures and triggered the referendum now set for March 10.
Opponents, organized as Citizens Against Alcohol in Spruce Pine, met Thursday night in a strategy meeting with Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
“We are appealing to the logic, not just to the soul and emotion of this issue,” he said. “We want to have plenty of visual reminders for people and may use personal letters to get the message out.”
He said Citizens Against Alcohol in Spruce Pine will also try to offer transportation to the polls for those voting against alcohol sales. Most importantly, he is calling for Christians in the community to pray.
“We are establishing prayer committees and encouraging the churches to pray, just bathing this thing in prayer and letting the Lord do His work,” Mills said.