Wednesday, January 22, 2014

To drink or not to drink: is this really THE question?

There is a movement afoot in Columbia County AR called "Vote for Growth in Columbia County" whose purpose is to make alcohol sales in Columbia County legal once again (the county was voted dry in 1942 and chose to stay dry in 1974).  To be fair, the group's expressed goal is revealed in the group's name; "Growth in Columbia County".

Is this issue, however, strictly about tax revenue being lost to neighboring counties?  What would we do with the additional revenue?  There is no doubt Columbia County residents who imbibe are driving to the county line to buy home stock but as revenue goes, how can one lose what one never had?  That revenue has been off the table since 1942; there are very few, if any, in county government today who can possibly remember when that tax revenue was available to be spent.  Apparently that revenue was not such a big deal in 1942 or in 1974.  Why now?

The state lottery was hyped as a means for enhancing the educational quality of life in Arkansas, but the only measure I have seen clearly showed a substantial increase in remediation rates in colleges and universities for students who were not prepared for college life, but I have yet to see that debt-free graduation rates have increased.  The level of awards has also been cut because the anticipated revenue did not keep up with demand.  I think that hype has been shown to be exactly what it was: snake oil.

In Nevada every vice known to humanity is available and legal, yet that state's unemployment rate is well above the national average.  No state enjoyed any real or tangible benefit from creating a lottery or legalized gambling, yet Arkansas believed it could somehow do better.  It hasn't.  It is just the same tired story in another setting.  Now Columbia County believes liquor sales will somehow create new opportunities and benefits.  This remains to be seen, but it is very hard to believe industry will suddenly break down this county's doors because of legal liquor sales.

I question the "quality of life" issue that may or may not be enhanced with the sale of alcohol.  Have those companies which have recently left Columbia County or downsized in the past five years done so because there are no liquor stores, or did they move because there are no major river, railroad, or interstate arteries?  Did these companies aggressively recruit the university for quality employees, or did they succumb to a dwindling labor pool and a supply/demand economy?  Have restaurant chains refused to move into Columbia County strictly because of the wet/dry issue?  To my knowledge there was one such public restaurant in Magnolia that gained permission to sell alcohol by the drink; it is now closed.  Alcohol sales apparently did nothing for that business.

We must also not overlook the fact that gasoline in Columbia County is often as much as $.05 - $.15 higher per gallon than in neighboring counties.  Could this not also be considered a "quality of life" issue?  There are many more voters who drive than who drink.  What has the city of Magnolia or Columbia County done to recoup this lost revenue?  Many commuters and weekend shoppers never purchase a single gallon of fuel in Columbia County because it is much less expensive in neighboring counties.  Surely this is an economic issue that continually affects the quality of life in Columbia County and adversely affects the county's coffers.

We can have a civil discussion about alcohol sales in Columbia County without questioning one's state or narrowness of mind, but let us have an honest discussion.  There are wet counties in Arkansas that are far worse off economically than Columbia County, at least two of which sit on a major highway, a railway, and/or a river (Jackson and Desha).  There are dry counties doing quite well without alcohol sales that also sit on major railroad, interstate, and river arteries although admittedly several restaurants are permitted to sell by the glass (Faulkner).  While no one would want to stand in the way of up to fifteen new jobs in Columbia County, I hardly think these potential opportunities will compel high school or university graduates to stay.  Nor do I believe liquor stores will be a gateway to bigger and better things to come.

Quality of life is a big issue for companies seeking to relocate, expand, or upstart; but education opportunities and affordable housing are usually at or near the top of the list of desirable places to locate and live in, in addition to a sufficiently educated labor pool.  Will liquor stores and convenience store beer encourage this potential labor pool to stay in the hopes that some new company will relocate to Columbia County because we have beer for sale?

Yes, city and county coffers will have some additional revenue; and I think most will readily agree that law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and rescue workers (to name only a few) should be paid more for the jobs they do so well.  I believe, however, city and county leaders need to think a little bigger than alcohol sales in terms of economic growth. 

Call it what it is: a drive to make alcohol sales legal in Columbia County, and let the voters choose based on real information - because these voters are not as gullible as some seem to hope.  

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