Sunday, July 22, 2018

Alcohol Sales in Pineville???

I recently returned from vacation to the news that two local "big-box stores" (Walmart and Super 1) had combined forces in a common venture (as reported by KALB and The Town Talk). These normal competitors were working together to seek to put a petition before the registered voters of Pineville in order to allow them to sell alcohol in their stores. Their primary claim seems to be that Pineville is missing out on the sales taxes paid by customers who drive to Alexandria to purchase alcohol, and make other purchases while in Alexandria stores. While there probably is some truth to that, there is always more to the story. Allow me to share some perspective from my understanding.

(If you want to skip all the history and perspective, jump down to the "Getting to the Point" section at the bottom.)

For many years Pineville has been a "dry" community, meaning no alcohol sales of any kind within the corporate limits. From what I"m told this dates back to the post-WW2 era as a reaction to the many bars that were located along Main Street to serve the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were trained in Central Louisiana, many of them right here at Camps Beauregard and Livingston. Following the war the residents of Pineville chose to make Pineville a "dry" community, a decision that many communities across Louisiana also made in the interest of improving the quality of life.

In the early 1980's there was a "local option" petition for all Wards 9, 10 and 11, all north of the river. That local option election differentiated between "low" and "high" alcohol content, low being less than 6% (basically beer and wine) and high being greater than 6% (hard liquor). Initially it appeared that all options were defeated. However, some eagle-eyed observers noted that the small portion of Ward 9 OUTSIDE the corporate limits of Pineville had actually approved the sale of LOW alcohol content. And that's the reason that several convenience stores along Hwy 28E, Hwy 107 and in Wardville do sell beer and wine, because they are in the portion of Ward 9 that is outside the city limits. And because of the way Pineville's city limits have expanded the last 35 years, many Pineville residents now live and drive home every day past establishments that currently sell beer and wine.

Folks seemed fairly content with this setup, although the alcohol question raised its head at pretty much every election, and most candidates pledged to keep Pineville dry. When I first ran for election as City Councilman in 2003 the question of alcohol was the most frequently raised question I got. My consistent response was that I was opposed to the sale of alcohol in Pineville, specifically in bars and liquor stores, but that ultimately it was the decision of the voters. That still remains my position today.

The most consistent concern expressed during that first campaign, and through the years, seemed to be that people wanted nicer restaurants in Pineville and felt they were staying away due to Pineville being dry. Many people who didn't drink said they wished Pineville allowed alcohol in restaurants only, as several other communities had done (i.e., Ruston, Minden, Mansfield, etc), thinking that would entice the nicer restaurants to locate in Pineville. That continued to be a constant point of discussion among citizens and developers alike. However, no action was taken and it just remained speculation.

Fast forward a dozen years or so when I was contacted by a local businessman who wanted to open a drive-through daiquiri shop on Hwy 28E in Pineville. He told me that he was aware of the ground-swell of opinion regarding the desire for nicer restaurants in Pineville, and that he planned to capitalize on that to circulate a petition for another "local option" election. He had already purchased the list of registered voters and had run polls indicating that people would overwhelmingly sign the petition to call for the local option election because they wanted restaurants.

This raised all sorts of red flags for me. My concern with the local option election was that it didn't just let people vote on alcohol in restaurants, but opened up the possibility of bars and liquor stores in our community, something that had been rejected for over 60 years. Bars and nightclubs would bring their own set of zoning issues into our "bedroom community." And I hated the idea of liquor stores in vulnerable areas of our community providing easier access, because multiple studies show that there is a direct relationship between alcohol and any number of negative outcomes, including violence, crime, road incidents, negative health impacts, and for some, alcohol dependence (See here, here, here, and here among others).

According to Louisiana Revised Statute 26:588, a successful petition for the local option election requires that five options (paraphrased below) MUST be placed on the ballot:

  1. Allow LOW content alcohol sales by package only (Sale of beer/wine in grocery stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, etc).
  2. Allow LOW content alcohol sales for consumption on premises (Sale of beer/wine in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, etc).
  3. Allow ALL alcohol sales of any content for consumption on premises (Sale of ALL alcohol in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, etc).
  4. Allow ALL alcohol sales of any content by package only (Sale of ALL alcohol in grocery stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, etc).
  5. Allow ALL alcohol sales of any content in restaurants only (This is currently the standard in Pineville).
I've paraphrased the options, but there they are. If that businessman had been successful in getting 25% of the registered voters to sign his petition, then the City Council would have been required by law to call for an election with all five options on the ballot. And this would open up a whole Pandora's Box of issues. And all because people wanting nicer restaurants were in favor of option 5.

There was another alternative to the local option. Several communities around the state had successfully petitioned the legislature to allow for their city council to call for an election with ONLY option 5 on the ballot. After much discussion, deliberation and debate, in 2013 the City Council and Mayor chose to pursue that option and asked the legislature for permission to call for such an election for restaurants only. I voted for that measure because I felt it would essentially prevent Pandora's Box from being opened. I knew many people, even those who didn't drink, were in favor of allowing restaurants to sell alcohol if that would bring nicer restaurants to Pineville.

Source: LA Secretary of State
In October of 2013 the citizens overwhelmingly approved that option by a 78% to 22% margin, and since that time a number of alcohol licenses have been issued, some to existing restaurants, some to restaurants who annexed into the city, and some who built after the "restaurant only" option became a reality. In fact, there are about a dozen license holders right now, including Red River Steak and Seafood, El Parián Mexican Restaurant, Genghis Mongolian Grill...and most recently, new constructions in Buckets Seafood and RibFins Smokehouse & Seafood, among others. And while we haven't seen a "national chain" open in Pineville yet, I'm aware of at least 3 different national brands looking closely at Pineville because of the opportunity to offer their full menu. This seemed to be an acceptable compromise, giving people what they wanted (the option for nicer restaurants) without opening the can of worms of a local option election, which could conceivably open the door to bars and liquor stores in Pineville.

Getting to the Point


But now we find that two large, out-of-state retailers are pushing for the petition to allow them to sweeten their bottom line by selling alcohol. And while they tout the benefits of the sales tax collections on alcohol, they don't tell the whole story. They make it seem like the petition is only to allow the sale of alcohol in grocery stores, but the reality is the election will allow for the possibility of bars, nightclubs, liquor stores and other elements that Pineville's citizens have traditionally rejected.

To me this is significantly different from the "restaurant-only" initiative that the citizens asked for. This is not a grass-roots effort by citizens, nor is it the result of years of collectively expressed desire for the perceived quality of life improvements that nicer restaurants bring. This is largely an economic question, driven by the bottom line of multi-billion dollar corporations who don't really care about our community standards. They care about profits. They won't have to deal with the negative fallout that eased access to alcohol will have on the more vulnerable parts of our society. They'll simply laugh their way to the bank. At our collective expense.

Some would say that the citizens deserve a right to vote on the matter. And perhaps they do. If the high-dollar firm hired by these two conglomerates gets their way there will indeed be a vote. But it will be a somewhat confusing vote because of the 5 options. And the outcome might not be as neat and pretty as the signature gatherers make it out to be. If it passes, alcohol won't only be sold in the grocery stores - it might just be in a "convenience" store next door to you, with bars on the windows and traffic all night long. Or it might be in a nightclub/bar not far from you with music blaring until 2AM and all the other issues that come with the package.

Personally I will NOT be signing the petition and I urge my friends to NOT sign it either. I think the minor inconvenience of not having easier access to alcohol is worth maintaining our healthy community standards and quality of life. And I'm willing to sacrifice the "sales tax revenue" to not have to have the negative impact on our community that relaxed access to alcohol is sure to bring. I don't want to see an increase in juvenile drinking, spousal abuse, and alcohol addiction/dependency because we're hungry for a few more sales tax dollars.

But that's just my opinion.


UPDATE:


One 7/24/18 I posted the following on Facebook:

I received a lot of great feedback on my blog about the Walmart/Super1 alcohol petition at https://www.facebook.com/NathanCCI/posts/10156605856647704 and I appreciate everyone's feedback, whether you agreed with me or not.
Several folks have asked about what they could do to express their disagreement with the petition. Some have asked about setting up tables next to the petition folks, but those stores are private property and I don't think the managers would give permission for that. And I think protests and placards outside would give them more exposure and would ultimately be counter-productive.
However, there is something that those who are opposed to the petition can do. This afternoon I spoke to Shane McDaniel, manager of the Pineville Mac's Fresh Market, and son of Reggie McDaniel, the owner of the 18 Mac's Fresh Markets across Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Shane told me that his father has a firm stance against selling alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets in any of his stores, even where it is perfectly legal. Just look at the Mac's Fresh Market on Jackson Street in Alexandria - legally they could sell those products, but they choose not to. He said it is a company principle that will not change, event after his father is gone.
So, for those who are upset that out-of-state companies have initiated this attempt to change our community standards, here's a suggestion. Perhaps drop a line to their corporate offices to let them know your feelings. You can contact Walmart at https://corporate.walmart.com/contact-us and Brookshires (parent company of Super 1) at https://www.brookshires.com/contact-us/ - be respectful, but let them know your feelings. Then, consider supporting a locally owned and operated business that agrees with your values - and make sure the folks at Mac's know why you're there. Thank them for choosing community well-being over profits.
Just my opinion...
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