Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town. But a WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll shows 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales everywhere in the county, not just in Sylva and Dillsboro, compared to 39 percent who would be opposed.
This particular question polarized respondents more strongly than any other issue on the poll, which was conducted by the Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, one of the Southeast’s most respected polling companies. Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided. Most questions saw undecided numbers of around 20 percent.
The poll questioned nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
“It’s fascinating that so few people are unsure,” said Christopher Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at WCU. “It seems like the kind of issue, if it’s ever on the ballot, that would lead to a high voter turnout.”
The alcohol question sticks out in a poll where most of the questions address trust in government. Clay County — one of the region’s smallest and most rural — recently voted to allow alcohol sales countywide, so it seems to be an emerging issue in Western North Carolina, Cooper said.
Though the area has traditionally been conservative on alcohol sales, a lingering recession may have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, however, doesn’t see the issue as pressing.
“I don’t have a whole lot of people stopping me in the grocery store, on the streets or calling me saying ‘We need alcohol sales,’” said Massie. “It’s not one of those things on my radar screen.”
Massie doesn’t see a trend toward acceptance in Western North Carolina, either. Clay County seems to be more the exception than the rule in the region, according to Massie.
“That’s got a whole lot more to do with tradition and deep-seated beliefs held by the populace,” said Massie.
Though Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones said there is actually more acceptance of alcohol in general, the primary motivating factor for legalizing alcohol sales countywide is most likely financial at this point.
“It is a revenue-generator at a time when sales are down and economies are tough,” said Jones.
WCU sees opportunity
According to Cooper, the biggest supporters of countywide sales were men, liberals, the more educated and the young.
Those who face a long drive to get a six-pack of beer or a few bottles of wine resoundingly said “yes” to countywide alcohol sales as well. About 68 percent of Cashiers residents clamored for change in Jackson County’s alcohol policy.
Meanwhile, Sylva residents just barely supported countywide sales, with only 50 percent voting “yes.”
Though WCU Chancellor John Bardo was reluctant to comment on the results of a poll conducted by the university, he did say legalizing alcohol sales in the county would have a tangible impact on the college.
The main effect, Bardo said, would be the potential for a viable commercial environment around the university. For now, Cullowhee is short on restaurants and grocery stores, and the total ban on alcohol sales may be to blame.
“People want to be able to go out to eat,” said Bardo. “It’s part of the quality of life they’re looking for.”
Alcohol sales countywide might lead to higher tax revenues for local government, a better business environment in Cullowhee as well as a positive impact on student enrollment.
“More services make the university more attractive,” said Bardo.
Jones agreed that Cullowhee businesses would make a handsome profit if students weren’t forced to drive to Sylva to buy their alcohol.
Moreover, Jones cited the trend of more retired individuals moving to college towns for its culture and activities. Allowing alcohol sales in Cullowhee would enhance the area’s attractiveness to these potential residents, Jones said.
But Massie said the few miles drive to Sylva most likely isn’t a major problem for students at Western. He recalled the days Jackson County was completely dry, when students would make beer runs all the way to Waynesville.
“College kids, if they want beer, and it’s legal for them to get it, they’re going to get it,” said Massie.
Cashiers highly supportive
Commissioner Jones, who manages High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, constantly encounters guests who query him on the nearest place to buy alcohol.
“For convenience, I send them to Highlands [in Macon County],” said Jones. “I’m guilty as charged.”
With Highlands a lot closer than Sylva, guests and residents alike often opt for the quicker trip when they’re thirsting for beer, wine and liquor. Jones said he cannot gauge how many thousands of dollars in potential tax revenue Jackson County loses each year in the process.
Some businesses in Cashiers are allowed to sell liquor, but only if they are established as a private club. Because these venues are required to purchase alcohol only from a Jackson County store, every restocking requires a drive down the mountain to Sylva or Dillsboro.
“It would save a lot of time, gas and trouble and expense to have an ABC store [here],” Jones said.
Though Jones supports countywide alcohol sales, he said he would rather see citizens petition to put the issue on the ballot than for the commissioners to get involved.
Massie, too, said he’d like to see a vote by the people, though he did not have a strong opinion on the matter.
“I’m not a teetotaler so it doesn’t bother me one way or another,” said Massie.
Still Massie, Jones and Commissioner Brian McMahan said they are all concerned that Jackson County ranks in the top 10 in North Carolina for alcohol-related accidents.
Though towns benefit economically from alcohol sales, there’s always a price to pay. “The trade-off is what are the social problems and liabilities that come with the sale of alcohol,” said Massie.
“Any time you have alcohol sales, you’re going to have that problem,” said Jones, adding that part of the tax revenues from alcohol sales do go toward law enforcement and education.
For McMahan, having widespread alcohol sales would probably not be worth the risks. McMahan said he would neither support legalizing alcohol sales in the county nor putting the issue on the ballot.
“The present system works, and there’s no need to change it,” said McMahan.
Sylva not swayed
Cooper has two theories to explain why Sylva voters were more reluctant than others to welcome countywide sales.
Of the alcohol tax that stays locally, Sylva shares half of the tax revenue from alcohol sales with the county and keeps the other half.
Allowing alcohol sales everywhere obviously means fewer people driving into Sylva or Dillsboro to buy their beer, leading to a direct decline in the town’s revenues. Sylva voters might have taken that into account when a higher number of them opposed countywide sales.
Cooper’s other theory is that alcohol is already widely available to Sylva residents.
“If you live in Sylva, what do you care if there’s alcohol in Cashiers?” said Cooper.
Massie, who represents Sylva on the county board, has another conjecture altogether. While elected officials and town employees are well-aware of the alcohol’s impact on revenues, that’s probably not driving your average Sylva resident to vote “no.”
“Sylva has a concentration of some of the biggest churches in the county,” said Massie. “That’s what I’m thinking is the reason.”