There’s been plenty of back-and-forth debate between the “wet” and “dry” forces lately about what an alcohol-legal Somerset might be like.
But what do those in other cities — ones where expanded drink sales have become a recent reality — have to say?
As it turns out, very little that’s negative — whether you’re talking to economic development types or law enforcement personnel.
The Commonwealth Journal spoke this week with parties from three different smaller Kentucky cities that have held votes in the last couple of years to allow the kind of full-scale alcohol availability that is at stake on Tuesday, June 26. That’s when Somerset voters will participate in a local option election, applying only to businesses within the city limits.
Contacted were representatives of the police departments from Danville (which allowed alcohol by the drink in larger restaurants in 2003 and for smaller establishments, bars, and package sales in the spring of 2010), Elizabethtown (which voted to permit package sales in October 2011 after being “moist” since 2002), and Corbin (which allowed drinks in restaurants in 2003, and package sales this past February).
Also contacted were economic development leaders from Danville and Elizabethtown. Bruce Carpenter, director of the Corbin Economic Development Agency, was contacted during the past week but did not return phone calls in time for publication of this article.
Corbin is a fourth-class city with a population of just over 7,300 as of the 2010 census. Danville is a third-class city with over 16,200 citizens, and Elizabethtown is the largest at more than 28,530, despite its fourth-class city status. Compare to Somerset, a third-class city with just under 11,200 residents as of the 2010 count.
Somerset’s vote, if approved, would allow the town full “wet” status, including individual drink sales in restaurants and package sales in stores.
Rules for taxation opportunities based on alcohol and restaurant sales vary from class to class, and cities may request the state legislature grant them a certain classification despite their size.
Danville’s Business of Booze
When asked whether or not alcohol has helped his city prosper, Danville’s Jody Lassiter answered simply: “It has.”
Lassiter is president and CEO of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, which ropes in the Boyle County Industrial Foundation, the tourism bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, and more.
“Our objective from our economic development partner agencies was to move from a ‘moist’ condition (that is, serving only drinks in restaurants with 100-plus seats individually) to ‘wet’,” he said. “(‘Moist’ status) was fine for Applebee’s and O’Charley’s, but it was not having any positive benefits for the restaurants downtown. In fact, it was inhibiting (them).”
That’s because picturesque downtown Danville was — much like Somerset — lined with older buildings and storefronts, places that didn’t have the kind of space to meet the seating requirements held by the town’s post-2003 alcohol policies.
“We needed a fix,” he said, “and Kentucky alcohol laws don’t provide many fixes other than to go completely ‘wet’.”
The result, to hear Lassiter tell it, has been a boom. For minutes, Lassiter described in detail a variety of locally-owned restaurants, high-quality package stores, and even a bar/nightclub and a pair of microbreweries that have opened in Danville following the 2010 referendum (one of the breweries has made a $500,000 investment to distribute kegs and have taps in restaurants along with bottles, said Lassiter).
“Since then, we’ve developed three downtown restaurants, with one in the works, all of which are smaller, maybe 35 seats; (one) has 50,” he said. “We’ve had six new package liquor stores, one of which is a specialty boutique shop downtown with wines and specialty bourbons and cheeses and chocolates. It has opened up a whisky bar in association with it. It’s higher-end, and has a very country, Kentucky feel. There are five other typical package stores, one of which is the first Liquor Barn ever developed outside of the metropolitan areas in Kentucky (it opened at the end of last year).”
As a third-class city, said Lassiter, Danville is allowed to have six bar licenses — though only one so far, the nightclub, has not had a food emphasis anyway, he noted.
In terms of dollar amounts, Lassiter described a windfall: Since July 2010, alcohol sales in Danville have totaled $22 million. He said that only $3 million has come from restaurants, “ironically” the same amount that they were bringing in before the “wet” vote. “The lion’s share” of the other $19 million has come from package retail sales of beer and liquor.
“That’s surprising to me,” he said. “I thought we’d see more of an increase in sales in restaurants.” However, “as the campaign promises, we wanted to attract our own local dollars that were going to Mercer County or the Anderson County line or Nicholasville or Lancaster. We’re retaining those dollars at present.”
So far, it’s meant $600,000 going to the City of Danville’s government in new revenue. It has to be applied toward the enforcement of alcohol control; and public safety, but “that frees up that amount elsewhere in the budget,” said Lassiter. “When city budgets are most under tight constraints, that gives more freedom to the city to apply dollars toward police and equipment.”
Additionally, Lassiter noted that Boyle County had a 9 percent increase in tourism dollars, making it one of the leading communities in the Bluegrass Area, according to recently released figured from the state’s tourism cabinet (it also made the largest jump from one year to the next, with only about a 3 percent increase in 2010).
“I associated that with the opportunity to retain visitors and have more options for business and pleasure,” said Lassiter. “Before that, there was nothing beyond the ordinary here outside of the typical festivals to account for that increase. Through that effort, you have more heads in beds at hotels, more food sales, more retails sales. It’s good for the state in sales taxes, but where the local government collects, it’s jobs generated through payroll tax and improvement of properties through the property tax.
“We need to provide those amenities that other communities don’t think twice about,” he added. “We have a lot of business travel. You have to be prepared to serve (visitors) with nice restaurants ... (or) the opportunity to run across the street and get a six-pack or wine.”
Changes in Elizabethtown
Steve Park is finance director for Elizabethtown, near the military base Fort Knox in central Kentucky. Drink sales in restaurants aren’t new to that town, but the Hardin County community was surrounded by others that offered more for customers who wanted to buy in bulk.
“Bullitt County, Nelson County, and Meade County were all wet,” he said. “We’ve had a little bit of an increase in DUI (driving under the influence), but I don’t know if you can tie it to the ‘wet’ (status). People who wanted to partake were driving to those neighboring counties anyway.
“Most studies I’ve seen published say you actually have fewer drunken driving calls if ‘wet’,” he added. (Kentucky State Police records have shown that “dry” counties in southeastern Kentucky near Somerset tend to have greater amounts of DUI offenses than “moist” towns, as reported by the Corbin Times-Tribune reported earlier this year.)
Since going full “wet” last fall, Park said that Elizabethtown has seen “some new restaurants” but the “big influx on new business” is in the form of retail beer and liquor sales. It’s meant some makeovers, but grocery stores (three, including two Krogers locations), pharmacies, and convenience and liquor stores (four package stores have opened) have all been getting in on the act.
“We didn’t award licenses to package stores until February; some haven’t opened yet because grocery stores have to have a separate entrance; pharmacies don’t have to do that,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of stand-alone stores open recently. We’ve had 12 licenses issued in all. About six or seven are opened now, so we’re just starting to see the economic benefits.”
But the benefits are there — $596,000 in bonus city revenue this year, said Park, coming largely from licenses and fees. Restaurants chip in around $175,000. The city is able to charge a 5 percent regulatory fee being fourth-class, and it’s meant $110,000 since beer started being sold in December.
“We’ve got a lot of regulatory fees in,” said Park. “Second-class cities can’t do it. (Hardin County community) Radcliff is a second-class city and they can’t charge it.”
The Law Enforcement Angle
But what about safety? Have increased alcohol sales made these counties more dangerous places to live and drive?
Virgil Willoughby, public information director for the Elizabethtown Police Department, says “it’s too soon to tell” right now.
“It’s so early into (the period of expanded alcohol sales), this would take two or three more years to say if alcohol has made a difference,” he said.
Plus, alcohol itself doesn’t necessary account for increases in numbers much of the time.
“There are a lot of factors and variables that go along with (DUI and alcohol arrests),” said Willoughby. “You can have more DUI (offenses) if you’ve had more officers working the midnight shift. It’s like a batting average. If you swing enough, you’ll hit something. If you stop enough vehicles, you’re going to fall into something.”
Because Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) policies have funds raised by alcohol sales directly benefiting local law enforcement in towns like these (in Elizabethtown, said Parks, other organizations such as alcohol abuse treatment and prevention programs, were offered the chance to make requests for alcohol-sale revenue), the Elizabethtown Police Department has grown from 43 officers to 49 in the last 18 months, with three new positions directly attributable to the alcohol revenue, said Willoughby.
Asst. Chief Thomas Bustle, ABC administrator of the Danville Police Department, said that “alcohol-related arrests have remained pretty close to the same” as they were before the latest vote. “There are some fluctuations month to month, but there’s not been an increase or decrease. ... Overall, alcohol-related arrests have stayed flat.”
In 2002, before Danville went “moist,” the city saw 18 alcohol-related automobile accidents. The biggest spike was in 2006, when there were 31, but by 2010, there were only 21. DUI numbers had similar consistency (usually in the 140s, but with 200 in 2009 and 103 in 2006), as did total alcohol related arrests (usually between 250-290). Both of those two categories saw significant jumps in 2009 (320 total arrests, 200 for DUI), but that was a result of getting “more manpower” back on the force after being down in numbers, said Bustle.
“We have seen some benefits from alcohol money,” he said. “Two officer’s spots that we had not filled when the economy went bad, we filled them with alcohol money. We were able to assist in putting school resource officers into the school system. The schools picked up part of that cost, and we used alcohol money to pick up the other. We’ve got one position we’re going to be hiring for in the upcoming budget year. We’re going to buy cameras for our cruisers and some PBTs (preliminary breath tests).”
Doug Price of the Corbin Police Department said that based on the numbers, “there was really no appreciable difference either way” from DUI rates before expanded alcohol sales and after.
“The numbers may go up a few, they may go down a few,” he said. “It really just kind of jumps around. I don’t see a trend.”
Though there are no statistics available for 2012 following the “wet” vote, the highest number of DUI arrests Corbin Police worked was 229 in 2002 — before the town went “moist.” In 2004, the number was 161, 178 in 2005, 119 in 2006 and 127 in 2011.
Corbin ABC administrator Bruce Rains, the assistant police chief there, said that seven beer licenses have been given out, and a local Rite-Aid is already selling it.
“We broke $14,000 the first day,” he said. “We’re just now getting things going. We don’t even have package stores yet.”