By KEN SHMIDHEISER, Managing Editor and CHRIS HARRIS, Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
When Somerset leap-frogged Burnside in the race to expand alcoholic beverage sales last year, the retail sales dynamics for mom ’n pop convenience stores and service stations throughout Pulaski County changed almost overnight.
“Our weekend business used to be the busiest time of the week,” said Andy Patel, operator of D&D Shell at Science Hill. “But since Somerset began selling beer and alcoholic beverages, our weekend business has really slowed down. Customers will pass us by on their way to buy beer in Somerset.”
Harold Hampton, owner of Hampton’s Marathon in downtown Burnside, expressed similar sentiments.
“You only make about $1.72 on case of beer, but the ability to sell beer certainly does help drive traffic to a convenience station,” Hampton said.
Now some of these stations have joined the fight to legalize alcoholic beverage sales outside Somerset and into Pulaski County. Spearheading the drive for a countywide local option election is Jess Lockard of Bronston. His petition reads:
“We request and demand a Election be set to legalize the sale of alcohol for a unified Pulaski County has hold.”
The petition, dated Friday, March 22, 2013, has already been signed by 569 persons at D&D, and a similar number at Hampton’s Marathon. Ken Patel, operator of Burnside Shell at the south end of the town also is circulating the petition. However, the document is noticeably absent from Slate Branch and Oak Hill Shell Stations.
Pulaski County Clerk Ralph Troxtell confirmed he had been approached by petitioners and explained that by law they would need 6,500 signatures to call a county local option election. Hampton said he expected the petitions to be circulated until they contained 10,000 signatures to allow for disqualifications.
Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield was out of the office Monday and had not had an opportunity to take a thorough look at the petition.
However, he was able to point out the general importance of being able to verify the signatures on it — which could come from voters all over Pulaski County, “and Somerset is in Pulaski County,” he said — and signers to know exactly what they’re putting their name on.
“I would want to take a look at the petition and see if it meets the statutory requirements, but I haven’t been asked to look at the petition,” said Hatfield. “Number one, you’d want to make sure the petition meets statutory requirements. After that’s been done and it’s been turned in, number two, you’d want to verify all the signatures and make sure they’re all legal.”
One thing the petition, as written, doesn’t do is specify exactly what people would be voting for to be sold. During the petition drive for Somerset to go “wet” last year, Progress Somerset founder Dave Weddle noted that it was important to state on the petition exactly what citizens would be voting for on the ballot.
While Lockard’s petition just mentions “the sale of alcohol,” Lockard himself says that what he’s envisioning is merely beer and malt beverage sales in stores, much as Somerset has had since last September in grocery and convenience retailers, as opposed to liquor stores.
“I just think it should be beer and wine coolers, things of that nature,” he said. “No spirits.”
Lockard, who is retired from a career in corporate management (he declined to say which company he had worked for), said he and a “group” of others decided to start the petition drive to provide more purchasing options for those living outside of the Somerset city limits.
“A number of people had approached me, talking about living way out in the county and driving to Somerset to purchase a six-pack of beer or something of that nature,” said Lockard. “One thing led to another, and we thought we’d do it (the petition drive) for the county.”
Lockard said that he has “been in contact with lawyers that gave us the information we needed on that petition drive,” and have “updated it closely and found the right way to go on it,” as far as getting the statutory details down pat.
Lockard declined to say exactly how many stores he had contacted about hosting the petition, but said that the number would be “20 or better.” He said that he hopes to have the drive wrapped up “very soon” — the end of April would be “within the ballpark” — and that he’s optimistic about getting the signatures he needs.
“Yes sir, I do think small rural areas like Nancy, Science Hill, places like that (could benefit from beer sales in stores),” said Lockard. “I think their business will pick up drastically if they could get the license to sell like in the city.”
Hampton, whose relatives own liquor stores north of Pulaski County, said those family businesses which once catered to Pulaski County customers have lost a lot of their core business since beer sales were legalized here. Within the last week, two liquor stores have opened with more coming soon, so it is yet too early to measure their effect on alcoholic beverage sales in cities like Richmond where Pulaski County alcohol beverage consumers traditionally shopped.
However, Morgan Wesley, owner of Liquor World in Richmond, told the Commonwealth Journal that he expects his business to be adversely affected. (Wesley had hoped to be licensed for a large liquor store next to Big Lots in north Somerset, however his business was not among the six initially granted licenses by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Agency.)