Western Carolina University is remaining mostly neutral on the topic of alcohol coming to Cullowhee, at least officially.
“The campus has had alcohol on it for many, many, many years, and I don’t see that changing,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student development. “It doesn’t really make it much better or worse.”
Although the approval of countywide alcohol sales will bring booze to WCU’s doorstep, the vote does not necessarily translate to more underage drinking and other alcohol-related crimes, stated university officials.
“Students already have access to alcohol sold in stores and restaurants just a few miles from campus. The availability of alcohol closer to campus will certainly be more convenient for many students, but we don’t know how or if that will change their behavior,” said WCU Chancellor David Belcher in a statement.
Most other college campuses in the country have stores and bars selling alcohol all around them, yet drinking is not substantially different among students at WCU where it is less accessible, according to a study by the Healthy Campus initiative on alcohol and drug use among students in 2007.
“Alcohol is a tremendous risk factor for our students as it is nationally,” Miller said.
And, like many other colleges nationwide, WCU requires its freshmen to complete an alcohol education program and take tests featuring alcohol-related trivia. The hope is that students will make more informed decisions when considering whether and how much to drink.
“We want to make sure they have good information about the risks of inappropriate use of alcohol,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, we know for many, many of our students, alcohol is part of what they consider the college experience.”
The Division of Student Affairs also offers the “Party Smart” website initiative, which gives students access to advice and information about alcohol.
While WCU isn’t publicly jumping for joy over the arrival of alcohol in Cullowhee, former chancellor John Bardo had openly adopted a pro-alcohol stance in his final years.
Cullowhee lacks a vibrant college town and nightlife scene, and that in turn hurt the university’s ability to recruit and retain students, Bardo had said. Bardo had been looking for ways to incorporate Cullowhee as a town, giving it the ability to make alcohol sales legal.
Four of the six businesses in Cullowhee that have expressed an interest in selling alcohol have hit a stumbling block after Sheriff Jimmy Ashe raised red flags over their locations — namely as being too close to WCU.
Ashe was designated by the county to render an official opinion on whether a particular establishment and its owner should be granted a permit from the state to serve alcohol.
Of the six establishments in Cullowhee that applied for permits, the sheriff offered a “thumbs down” assessment to four of the six for being too close to campus.
“With a 10,000 student population, this agency has already experienced a significant increase in underage drinking, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related sex offenses at fraternities and even alcohol-related deaths … with my experience of 30 years in law enforcement, this would not be a suitable location for alcohol sales,” Ashe wrote in response to the permit application.
University administrators expressed their appreciation for the sheriff’s concern.
“I think we share concerns about making sure our students are safe and are good neighbors in Jackson County,” Miller said.
No matter what happens with the alcohol permits, however, students will still be expected to follow the same code of conduct as always.
“Regardless, WCU will continue to expect that our students are living up to their responsibilities and are good neighbors to Jackson County residents,” Belcher said in the statement. “We will be following the impact of countywide alcohol sales very closely this fall.”
In 2010, 245 students were referred to the university’s disciplinary board for alcohol-related violations. That is a nearly 100 percent increase from the number of violations reported in 2009 but only up 45 referrals when compared to 2008.
The university has also done its part to vouch for area businesses that were deemed unsuitable for alcohol sales by Ashe.
“The university has been great,” said Jeannette Evans, owner of Mad Batter Bakery and Café in Cullowhee, who is facing delays after getting a negative assessment from Ashe on her permit application.
WCU’s General Counsel Mary Ann Lochner sent a brief letter to the state’s assistant director of ABC permits clarifying that Mad Batter, Rolling Stone Burrito and Bob’s Mini Mart — all of which have applied for alcohol permits — reside more than 50 feet from the entrance of the nearest building on the college’s campus. The letter refutes an assertion by Ashe that the businesses sit too close to the school.
Ashe filed reports stating that the three business are “located within 50 feet of educational institution properties in which 80 percent of the student population being potential customers are underage thus bringing on the problems of underage consumption and alcohol-related crimes involving persons underage.”
Despite her hard feelings about being denied a temporary permit for the time being, Evans said she does not feel like her business nor Cullowhee were singled out during the application process. The denial simply delayed the process, she said.
Evans traveled to Raleigh on Thursday to formally apply for a temporary permit with the state, which makes its own determination regardless of Ashe’s opinion. Evans called applying with the Sheriff’s office a “colossal waste of time.”
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was stripped of his appointed role to render thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessments of businesses wanting to sell alcohol.
Jackson County commissioners, who had initially appointed Ashe to the role, voted this week to instead make County Manager Chuck Wooten the go-to local official in the permit process.
Ashe indicated in a written statement last week that he didn’t really want the responsibility anyway.
The vote Monday to relieve Ashe of the position was a 3-2, down party lines. The two Democratic commissioners voted to keep Ashe, also a Democrat, in the position.
The issue of revoking the job from Ashe was originally not scheduled for discussion at the meeting. However, complaints from the community prompted the board to add the topic at the last minute.
Commissioner Joe Cowan acted surprised when Chairman Jack Debnam asked for a motion to swap Ashe for Wooten as the county appointee regarding alcohol permit matters. Cowan asked to put the vote off for another couple of weeks.
“Could we possibly postpone this item until the next meeting to give us time to read these?” asked Cowan. “I just got these resolutions, and I have not had time to read them or study them.”
Cowan then made a motion to postpone the decision until the board’s next meeting. Commissioner Doug Cody retorted that the resolutions only take a moment to peruse.
“These resolutions are about one page in length. I mean, how long does it take to read them?” Cody said.
Cody, Debnam and Commissioner Charles Elders voted against delaying the matter, and the three then succeed in pushing through the resolutions. Both Cody and Debnam previously expressed a desire to oust Ashe as the county designee following complaints from business owners.
Commissioner Mark Jones sided with Cowan.
“On the quick read, I disagreed,” Jones said, adding that he felt there was no need for a change since all the applications were processed in a timely manner under Ashe.
Specifically, Ashe’s role was to render an opinion on whether the owner and location of an esablishment wanting to sell alcohol was appropriate. If Ashe approved, that business could get temporary permit to sell alcohol while it waits for the much longer process to get a permanent permit from the state ABC Commission.
In a statement written May 30, Ashe stated that processing the permit applications, which requires background checks, interviews with community members and a visit to each location, is time consuming, and a change in appointee would allow his office time to conduct other duties.
“It would be more beneficial to my office to allow the county commissioners to assume the responsibility as the designee for the local government opinion form,” Ashe wrote. The statement wasn’t specifically addressed to anyone but apparently had been sent to commissioners.
Wooten will now take on the responsibilities of the county designee, though he has the option of appointing his own designee. Wooten indicated that if the applications became overwhelming, he would consider naming Gerald Green, the county planner, to the position.
Almost a month ago, Jackson County voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages by nearly 60 percent. And soon after, business owners rushed to file their applications for alcohol permits.
One of the first stops in the paperwork trail is to secure the blessing of Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.
However, Ashe filed unfavorable opinions about six of the 12 businesses that have applied so far. Those businesses have since gone over Ashe’s head to temporary permits directly from the state.
Four of the six that got a thumbs down from Ashe were in Cullowhee. Ashe didn’t like their proximity to campus for fear it would encourage underage drinking. One in Cashiers was turned down because of the applicant’s criminal record.
The sheriff also turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store on U.S. 441 just outside Cherokee, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. Ashe did not deem it fitting for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep, particularly when Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of their own in April.
Despite Ashe’s opinion, the state ABC Commission rather promptly issued the gas station a permit to start selling.
“Sales have done real well,” said Jamie Winchester, whose family owns the travel center. “It’s been really good.”
Who has it so far:
In Cashiers, Cornucopia Gourmet, Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers Farmers Market, Ingles grocery, Orchard Restaurant, and Cork and Barrel. In Cullowhee, The Package Store and Sazon Mexican Restaurant. In Tuckasegee, Caney Fork General Store. In Whittier, Catamount Travel Center.
Who’s still waiting:
Bob’s Mini Mart, Mad Batter, Rolling Stone Burrito and the Catamount Travel Center, all in Cullowhee.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe is refusing to grant permits for businesses wanting to sell alcoholic beverages despite voters overwhelmingly approving countywide alcohol sales when the issue appeared on the ballot earlier this month.
With Jackson County no longer dry, more than a dozen businesses have jumped on the booze bandwagon, from grocery stores to gas stations to restaurants, hoping to add alcohol to their coolers and menus. But so far, Ashe has balked at signing off on the needed permits.
In response, county commissioners are considering whether to strip Ashe of the authority and appoint someone else to oversee the permits instead.
“This caught all of us by surprise,” Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said of the board of commissioners. “I guess Sheriff Ashe has his opinion about whether Jackson County ought to sell alcoholic beverages, and it didn’t really matter what the wishes of the people were.”
Voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages May 8 by nearly 60 percent. Since then 13 businesses in Jackson County have started the application process. County commissioners must appoint someone to oversee and approve those applications.
Last week commissioners voted to have Ashe handle what’s known as the local government opinion part of the process — essentially a formality in which a local official says whether they approve of the applicant and of their particular location.
Ashe, however, has taken his authority to a new and unexpected level. The sheriff turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store in Whittier, for example, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of its own in April. Ashe apparently did not see fit for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep.
“Cherokee Indian Reservation as a sovereign nation recently voted down alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary, which was a strong message from that community that it was not wanted or needed,” Ashe wrote in a letter last week to Catamount Travel Center regarding the reasons for disapproval.
Additionally, the sheriff wrote that 1.7 million people annually travel by this location going to the reservation, and that letting the Catamount Travel Center sell alcohol would create “traffic problems and an overwhelming amount of motor vehicle accidents.”
Ashe asked the county commissioners for a budget increase to hire eight new deputies following the passage of countywide alcohol sales, claiming that establishments selling alcohol would place additional demands on his patrol units. Commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach, however, to determine whether the need is in fact there.
Ashe also rejected Catamount Travel Center’s request to sell alcohol at its Cullowhee location near Western Carolina University. In that case, he said the business was “located within 50 feet of educational institution properties in which 80 percent of the student population being potential customers are underage thus bringing on the problems of underage consumption and alcohol-related crimes involving persons underage.”
The sheriff said that “with a 10,000 student population this agency has already experienced a significant increase in underage drinking, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related sex offenses at fraternities and even alcohol-related deaths … with my experience of 30 years in law enforcement, this would not be a suitable location for alcohol sales.”
Ashe also turned down Bob’s Mini Mart, located in a strip mall on campus known as the “catwalk,” for essentially the same reasons. Owner Bob Hooper said that the sheriff claimed the business was within 50 feet of the university. Hooper said that it is not.
Most other college campuses in the state, if not the country, have stores and bars selling alcohol all around them, yet drinking is not substantially different among students at WCU where it is less accessible, according to a study by the Healthy Campus initiative on alcohol and drug use among students in 2007.
Whether Ashe would apply his reasoning to blacklist any and all gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants wanting to serve alcohol in the greater Cullowhee area is unknown. Ashe did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.
Nor is he returning messages left by Debnam either. Debnam called looking for some answers about what’s going on.
Debnam said that while the full board of county commissioners must make the decision, he for one is leaning toward picking someone else to handle the local application procedure. Commissioner Doug Cody said the same thing.
“We don’t have to have him do it,” Cody said. “There’s other options out there if this is going to be a problem for him.”
Ashe’s refusal to approve the applications is delaying the process but not stopping it. That’s because local business owners have the right to appeal the decision directly to the N.C. ABC Commission, which many of them are doing.
Hooper wasted no time bypassing Ashe and going straight to Raleigh. After getting his letter of denial from Ashe on Thursday, he was on the road to Raleigh the next morning to appeal to the N.C. ABC Commission. ABC agents plan to hear the appeal within a mandated 21-day period, he said.
“We’re going to get it, but it’s going to be a little slower,” Hooper said of his permit to sell.
Dwight Winchester, owner of the two Catamount Travel Centers, also drove to Raleigh on Friday, challenging Ashe’s denial of permits for both his Cherokee and Cullowhee locations. He received permission to start selling beer in his establishment outside Cherokee. He’s still blocked for now on the Cullowhee one, but he’s optimistic the ABC Commission will reverse that decision, too.
“He’s doing this to everyone in Cullowhee,” Winchester said of Ashe’s decision to deny him the permits.
Winchester said the state plans to investigate for itself whether his convenience store in Cullowhee is an appropriate location to sell beer and wine despite Ashe’s claims.
“What he wrote is factually incorrect. That’s what pissed me off with the sheriff,” Winchester said.
Ashe also claimed that allowing Catamount Travel Center in Cullowhee to sell alcohol would impede emergency responders at the Cullowhee Fire Department, that the fire department itself has protested against this location selling alcoholic beverages and that this would increase the probability of more alcohol-related accidents at the main intersection of the university.
Agnes Stevens, spokeswoman for the state ABC Commission, said it’s standard procedure for the state to do its own research if an applicant objects to having their permit denied at the local level.
“While local governments have a voice, the commission has the final say,” Stevens said.
Other business owners are gearing up to sell alcohol but aren’t yet ready equipment-wise, so the delay hasn’t impacted their bottom lines.
Jim Nichols, who owns an Exxon service station and a BP service station in Cashiers, said space is tight at the Exxon and that readying the store for beer coolers is going to require some expansion. He believes being able to offer beer to customers will help his businesses.
“If I had a nickel or dime for every customer who walked through that door looking for beer, wine or wine coolers, I’d have a lot of dough now,” Nichols said. “When we say we don’t have it, their faces show bewilderment — because this is a resort town.”
Jeannette Evans, owner of Mad Batter Bakery & Café, believes the availability of alcoholic beverages will help all of Cullowhee, not just her restaurant.
“I think of it as a chance to expand the vitality of the area and to expand the energy at night,” she said. “People like to sit down and have a glass of wine or a beer. I do think it’s part of dining out in the evening.”
Here’s who has applied in Jackson County to begin selling alcoholic beverages.
• Catamount Travel Center, Cullowhee
• Bob’s Mini Mart, Cullowhee
• Sazon, Cullowhee
• The Package Store, Cullowhee
• Mad Batter, Cullowhee
• Rolling Stone Burrito, Cullowhee
• Caney Fork General Store, Tuckasegee
• Tamburini’s Restaurant, Cashiers
• Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers
• Cashiers’ Farmers Market, Cashiers
• The Orchard, Cashiers
• Ingles grocery, Cashiers
• Catamount Travel Center, Cherokee
Exactly how many businesses have had their permits denied isn’t known. Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has not responded to requests that public records on this matter be released.
A request by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe for eight additional deputies now that the sale of alcoholic beverages has been approve countywide isn’t gaining much traction among the men who hold the purse strings.
“I’m going to have to be shown a reason why he needs eight more people,” County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said. “I don’t understand his reasoning.”
The other four commissioners, while not necessarily flatly disallowing the request, expressed similar sentiments about the proof being in the pudding.
Jackson County voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages during the May 8 primary. Before, the county was dry, with alcohol sold only in the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro.
In a letter to commissioners, Ashe said that countywide alcohol sales would “greatly increase the numbers of calls that my deputies respond to. With only five deputies per shift now they are already spread thin with the number of calls that we respond to.”
Ashe noted that without additional deputies “it will be extremely difficult to provide the best safety possible to our citizens of Jackson County.”
Eight additional deputies, he said, would allow him to add two deputies per shift. The sheriff said that he could then put two officers rather than only one, as is the case now, in the Cashiers, Glenville and Sapphire area.
“This is a large area for only one deputy to cover,” Ashe said. “If an extreme situation occurs and requires backup, the amount of time for another officer to respond could be detrimental to the safety of the officer as well as others involved.”
Ashe did not return a phone message requesting comment.
Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the southern portion of Jackson County, agreed with Ashe that there is likely to be more need for deputies over time. Jones said he believes there will be development pressures because of the countywide sale of alcohol in three communities of Jackson County: Cashiers, Cullowhee and the U.S. 441 Gateway area leading to Cherokee.
“At some point, there’s going to have to be an increase of law enforcement,” Jones said.
Commissioner Joe Cowan agreed that the time might come when Ashe needs additional deputies, but he emphasized that he’s reluctant to press forward with staff additions until the need is obvious and apparent.
“We need to find out what kind of impact, if any, it will have on his deputies,” Cowan said. “But I’ll certainly keep an open mind — because if you need ‘em, you need ‘em.”
It’s going to take quite some convincing, however, to get commissioners Doug Cody and Charles Elders to agree to spring for eight additional deputies in these fiscally tough times.
“I think Sheriff Ashe has staked out his position on it, but we haven’t staked out our position yet,” Cody said. “Eight deputies is a little farfetched in my opinion.”
Elders said that he wants to watch and see how the sale of alcoholic beverages plays out, in terms of whether crime actually increases or not and whether the burden on the sheriff’s department also increases accordingly.
“At the present time, the answer is ‘no,’” Elders said about the eight-deputy request by the sheriff. “But if it is really proven, that he needs them as this progresses, then OK.”
Chairman Debnam said he doesn’t believe the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages will change much in Jackson County when it comes to crime and law enforcement.
“I think people drink anyway,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any issues that haven’t already been there. If anything, there will probably be less people actually driving and drinking.”
State law mandates that the commissioners must set aside at least five percent of the gross receipts from the sale of alcohol at an ABC store for law enforcement. It does allow the county the option of contracting with the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency instead of handling those duties locally.
The advent of alcohol in Cullowhee is fueling efforts to implement some kind of land-use plan to guide growth in the community around Western Carolina University.
Some speculate that development could be fast and furious in Cullowhee in the wake of last week’s vote that paved the way for bars and convenience stores to peddle booze in the once dry reaches of Jackson County.
“There’s going to be tremendous growth, and Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County,” said Vincent Gendusa, a recent graduate of Western Carolina University. “That growth needs to be thought out. But, it’s going to be very hard to keep up.”
Cullowhee grew 47 percent between the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 U.S. Census. Those numbers, coupled with the results of the alcohol referendum, led Gendusa and other concerned Cullowhee residents to gather this week to discuss the possibility of community-based planning.
“We must be pragmatic and incremental,” County Planner Gerald Green cautioned the group. “I want our effort to be the right way and the correct way and to have the support of the community.”
Cullowhee is not its own town, and in the absence of a county ordinance regulating commercial development, Cullowhee has no way of ensuring commercial growth is in keeping with its character.
Jackson County has precedent, however, for enacting spot land-use plans for specific areas of the county, namely in Cashiers and the U.S. 441 Gateway area.
Green cited the Cashiers plan, created in 2003, as a possible model for Cullowhee.
Community-based planning was accepted in Cashiers, Green said, because there was a “well-formed commercial area with people who were interested in protecting property values.”
Doing the same in Cullowhee will mean gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land. Most of the meeting held this week centered on deciding in a rough fashion which parts of the Cullowhee community ought to be considered.
Jim Calderbank, a Cullowhee property owner who lives in Waynesville, suggested the group consider for inclusion old Cullowhee, Forest Hills and some residential areas that might want to be included.
The group ultimately agreed that any plan would start with WCU, with its 540-acre land mass.
“Use the university as the core and go out in tentacles,” said Roy Osborn, another Cullowhee resident and member of a homegrown Cullowhee revitalization group.
Ultimately, it was decided that Green, with help from Osborn, would rough out a potential designated area.
After the meeting, farmer and Cullowhee resident Curt Collins said that he believes the sell of alcoholic beverages will mean more good for the community than bad.
“I think that it will increase the economic vitality and increase the need for greater community participation in Cullowhee — and I think those are both good things,” Collins said, adding that it will be hard to stay ahead of the growth now that alcohol has been voted in.
“It is going to be slow,” Collins said of the prospect of instituting community-based zoning. “We may have businesses who take advantage of that and outpace us.”
On one hand, the new ability to sell alcohol could fuel local, independent-type restaurants — on the other, it could bring the proliferation of chain restaurants, said Mary Jean Herzog. The chair of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee, said the potential for businesses to sell. She hopes zoning can be implemented ahead of the curve.
“This could be the most beautiful college town in the country,” Herzog said, citing the great natural beauty of the area.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the county commissioners and a Cullowhee resident, doesn’t believe growth in Cullowhee will explode as a result of the referendum vote, at least not immediately.
“I think we’ll have some places selling beer,” he said in an interview. “But as far as bars, there’s no one there — who would support them in the off-season? I don’t see a big spurt happening.”
That said, Debnam also believes that the county and community does need to get a handle on growth in Cullowhee in the form of community-based planning or something similar.
“I think that’s something we are going to have to look at, whether it’s a business district or if Cullowhee decides to incorporate,” Debnam said.
Vicki Greene, an incoming county commissioner, said she believes this is a critical time for the Cullowhee community. While she believes there may be “a short timeframe for folks to get ready,” movement on the issue is promising.
“The community is taking the lead,” she said. “And in the long term, that is the most effective way of instituting planning efforts.”
Greene, who attended last week’s meeting, won the Democratic primary for commissioner and given the lack of opposition for the seat in the general November election is poised to become a commissioner in December. None of the current commissioners attended the meeting.
But, it appears county commissioners would be willing to consider a land-use plan for Cullowhee if that’s what people there want.
Commissioner Doug Cody said he think there will be “a natural evolution of this thing as it goes on.”
Cody said the important thing is that the Cullowhee community is in the driver’s seat during the process.
“At some point and time, people will want planning. And we’re all for letting people decide — we’re not for ramming anything down anyone’s throat,” Cody said.
The sale of alcoholic beverages, he said, “will help the Cullowhee revitalization effort. I think five years down the road we’ll look back and see this as a very good thing for the county.”
For his part, Commissioner Charles Elders said that he hasn’t yet given thought to whether some form of growth controls are needed in Cullowhee, though he does believe it will become a topic of discussion for commissioners.
Joe Cowan, who did not run for re-election, said that the zoning plan for Cashiers has worked well, and that it is possible something similar could be done for Cullowhee.
Commissioner Mark Jones did not return phone messages requesting comment.
A spot land-use plan was passed in 2003 to govern commercial development in Cashiers, making Jackson one of the first, and still to this day one of the only, counties in WNC to have land-use planning outside town limits.
Cashiers has two districts: a “village central” and a general commercial zone. The Jackson County Board of Commissioners created the five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council, which is tasked with reviewing and overseeing development guidelines in concert with the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.
The plan set growth regulations, such as building set backs, lighting and sign standards. The only type of development that was banned outright was cell phone towers in the Village Center district.
Large, walk-in beer coolers are ready and waiting to be stocked at Dwight and Jamie Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center, a gas station directly across the street from the entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.
They’ve been there for eight years in anticipation that one day alcoholic beverages could be sold countywide in Jackson. The day of reckoning has finally come, with Jackson voters poised to decide on countywide alcohol sales in the May primary election.
And the financial stakes for the sale of alcoholic beverages by the Winchesters and others in the Gateway community along U.S. 441 just got a lot higher after Cherokee voters overwhelming decided this month to keep the reservation dry except for the casino.
Winchester’s gas station is literally the first and closest stop for potential beer buyers from Cherokee, literally a stone’s throw from the reservation boundary line.
Winchester is keenly positioned to capture the business of anyone in Cherokee looking for beer, saving them what would otherwise be 15-minute drive west to Bryson City or a bit more than that east to Sylva.
“We don’t have to have beer to be successful,” said Dwight Winchester, gesturing at his bustling store, mid-morning on a workday. “But we do, of course, want it.”
Winchester said there has been a lot of land speculation along U.S. 441 in anticipation of a “yes” vote to alcohol sales. Winchester said that he expects plenty of company in coming days, in the form of other businesses setting up to sell alcoholic beverages, if the vote indeed passes.
The Winchesters currently employee 42 people, and they expect to add two or three more workers if alcohol sales are allowed.
Winchester, though he clearly and unabashedly hopes the referendum does go through, is concerned about perceptions of his business on the nearby Cherokee Reservation when he begins selling alcoholic beverages.
“I have great respect for the folks and the pastors who feel so strongly against it,” said Winchester.
The Bryson City native added that he’s struggling with how exactly to broach the matter with those Cherokee residents who just voted “no” so clearly — more than 66 percent specifically voted against the sale of beer and wine at gas stations and grocery stores — firmly and unequivocally.
“But, the economic increase is going to outweigh any negative you can come up with,” Winchester said.
Winchester said the beer companies clearly believe the sale of alcoholic beverages will pass in Jackson County because they’ve frequently been in his store to discuss the matter. Those sellers’ guesses are as good as any: there’s barely been any discussion of the matter publicly, for or against, in Jackson County since commissioners first decided on the vote last year. That, however, certainly wasn’t the case in Cherokee.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the sale of alcoholic beverages on the reservation were busy mailing out flyers, putting up signs and giving speeches to bolster their cases.
A recent study by Martin and McGill found that the tribe conservatively would have received up to $3.8 million in revenue via an ABC retail store within five years. The tribe’s version of sales tax was projected to pump a total of $1.7 million into Cherokee’s general fund from the addition of alcohol sales.
Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center is a combination gas station and Huddle House. The Winchesters have an identical business in Cullowhee, too, another potential hotspot for the sale of alcoholic beverages with the captive Western Carolina University population. The Gateway business was built in 2004, the one in Cullowhee in 2001. When both were built large beer walk-in coolers were included in each.
To say they are now perfectly positioned to benefit financially from the sale of alcoholic beverages is to indulge somewhat in understatement.
If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.
The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, at least according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
Jamie Winchester said she is uncertain how quickly the couple’s stores would be able to sell alcohol if the measure passes May 8. She has been undergoing a self-taught crash course in North Carolina alcohol sales to, in part, try to determine just that.
Dwight Winchester said if the vote is “no” that’s OK with the couple, too.
“We’re not going to go anywhere regardless,” he said.
About two dozen people gathered outside the tribal council house broke into song with the words “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God,” after the final results of Cherokee alcohol vote were tabulated last week.
The Cherokee Reservation will remain dry, keeping in place the historic ban on alcohol sales, following Thursday’s vote on the issue. Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sent a strong message with about 60 percent voting “no” to alcohol sales.
“It sent a clear message that we are not going to be affected by those few who would benefit” from the sale of alcohol, said Amy Walker, an enrolled member from Birdtown.
Opponents of the referendum said that easier access to alcohol would lead to increased rates of alcoholism, drunken driving and domestic violence.
“If we made $100 in revenue from alcohol, it would cost us $10,000 to treat the problem,” said Peggy Hill of the Yellow Hill community.
A few of those gathered wore T-shirts that read, “We have come too far to die by our own hand.”
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the only establishment in Cherokee where alcohol is sold. Cherokee residents instead have to drive 20 minutes or more into Sylva or Bryson City to get a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine.
That could change later this year, however, as voters in Jackson County are having an alcohol election of their own in the May primary. If Jackson County voters approve countywide alcohol sales, it would become available literally a stone’s throw from the reservation.
Jeff Arneach, who was leaving the polls last Thursday, voted to allow alcohol sales on the reservation partially because he had read that drunken driving is more common in areas that are dry. If alcohol can be purchased in Cherokee, the incidents of drinking and driving might decline, Arneach theorized.
Proponents had also said that alcohol sales were necessary for the tourism industry. Businesses have lost customers because visitors can’t get wine or beer in Cherokee, even on the menu in restaurants, supporters of the referendum said.
For some enrolled members who live in other states, the vote was important enough to them to travel back to the reservation to vote in the election.
Larry Maney, a 70-year-old enrolled member who lives in Tennessee, drove more than two hours to have his say.
“I’ve seen a lot of harm — broken homes, marriages, a lot of abuse in families,” Maney said. “It just doesn’t make sense” to approve the referendum, he said.
Earlier Thursday, before the vote results rolled in, students from Cherokee High School presented the results of their own vote to Cherokee leaders. During that vote, an even larger percentage of students — 66 percent — voted down the measure, said Missy Crowe, an enrolled member whose son attends the high school.
Crowe was one of at least 40 Cherokee who filed an injunction three days before the election trying to derail the vote. The injunction said tribal council, the election board, the ABC Commission and Chief Michell Hicks violated tribal law by holding the vote. The Eastern Band held a referendum vote in 2009 to allow the sale of alcohol in its casino. The law states that the tribe could not hold another alcohol vote until 2014, according to the injunction request.
A judge later denied the request, saying that an injunction is an extraordinary remedy. The enrolled members had not sought out other avenue in which to air their grievances, such as filing a formal protest with the election board, the judge’s decision reads.
As part of the referendum, each community had the option of voting alcohol sales up or down. The flexibility meant any of the six communities in Cherokee could separately opt out even if the majority elsewhere on the reservation had approved alcohol sales.
However, the option is moot at this point since the reservation will remain dry.
Birdtown was the only community where a majority of voters approved any form of alcohol. They narrowly voted in favor of opening an ABC store — the final total was 308 for and 306 against. But, like other communities, they voted against alcohol sales in restaurants, groceries or convenience stores.
The vote was close in Yellowhill and Birdtown, communities closer to the center of town, with the anti-alcohol sentiments winning by only a narrow margin.
Meanwhile, one of the reservation’s more traditional communities of Big Cove answered an emphatic ‘no,’ with more than 75 percent of voters striking down the referendum.
“I think there was a lot of emotion involved” in people’s decision, said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board. Rose spearheaded a committee who promoted the referendum.
Rose said alcohol sales could have garnered millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe and the economy on the reservation.
“I am not terribly surprised” that people voted against the sale of alcohol in restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores, however, Rose said.
Of those who voted, 1,640 enrolled members voted down the sale of beer or wine in grocery and convenience stores — compared to the almost 1,500 who voted down the other two questions. Critics of the referendum disparaged the words grocery and convenience stores, asking if someone could put a can of beans on a shelf and call it a grocery store. People did not want beer joints cropping up all over the reservation.
In the election, 2,517 people cast a ballot. Voter turnout among local members of the tribe is difficult to determine, however. All enrolled members no matter where they live are eligible to vote in tribal elections, but have to travel to Cherokee to cast a ballot. There are a total of 6,715 eligible voters in the tribe, making total voter turnout around 30 percent — but the turnout was likely much higher than that among local enrolled members as enrolled members who live elsewhere in the state or country may have opted not to make the trip to Cherokee to vote, bringing down the total voter turnout.
Now that the vote has taken place, the tribe cannot hold another referendum vote on alcohol for at least five years.
There were three separate questions on the ballot related to different types of beer, wine and liquor sales:
• 60 percent voted against an ABC store where the public could purchase liquor.
• 61 percent voted against the sale of beer, wine or mixed drinks in restaurants.
• 66 percent voted against the sale of beer or wine in grocery and convenience stores.
Although the anti-alcohol movement handily won this time around, supporters of alcohol sales have gained a little ground during the past two decades. In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated by a wider margin of 72 percent in a vote of 1,532 to 601.
The Cherokee Reservation will remain dry, keeping in place the historic ban on alcohol sales, following Thursday’s election on the issue.
Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sent a strong message with about 60 percent voting “no” to alcohol sales. There were three separate questions on the ballot related to different types of beer, wine and liquor sales.
• 60 percent voted against an ABC store where the public could purchase liquor
• 61 percent voted against the sale of beer, wine or mixed drinks in restaurants.
• 66 percent voted against the sale of beer or wine in grocery stores and convenience stores.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the only establishment in Cherokee where alcohol is sold. Cherokee residents have to drive 20 minutes or more into Sylva or Bryson City to get a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine.
That could change later this year, however, as voters in Jackson County are having an alcohol election of their own in the May primary. If Jackson County voters approved countywide alcohol sales, it would become available literally a stone’s throw from the reservation.
Each community had the option of voting alcohol sales up or down. The flexibility meant that if the majority of voters approved alcohol sales on the reservation, any of the six communities in Cherokee could decide separately whether to keep alcohol out.
This two-part litmus test of sorts means one community couldn’t push through selling alcohol in their own neck of the woods if the idea of alcohol sales in general failed to garner the support of the majority.
However, the option is moot at this point since the reservation will remain dry.
Birdtown was the only community where a majority of voters approved any form of alcohol. They narrowly voted in favor of opening an ABC store but like other communities voted against alcohol sales in restaurants, gas stations or convenience stores.
Opponents of the referendum said that alcohol would only lead to more instances of drunken driving, alcoholism, child neglect and domestic violence. Proponents had said that alcohol sales were necessary for the tourism industry. Business owners have lost customers because they can’t obtain a glass of wine or beer in Cherokee, supporters of the referendum said.
In the election, 2,517 people cast a ballot. Voter turnout among local members of the tribe is difficult to determine, however. All enrolled members no matter where they live are eligible to vote in tribal elections but have to travel to Cherokee to cast a ballot. There are a total of 6,715 eligible voters in the tribe, making total voter turn-out around 30 percent — but the turnout was likely much higher than that among local enrolled members while enrolled members who live elsewhere in the state or country may have opted not to make the trip to Cherokee to vote, bringing down the total voter turn-out.
See The Smoky Mountain News print edition Wednesday for a full analysis and break down of results.
Opinions among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians remain mixed leading up to a vote that could lift a historic ban on alcohol sales on the reservation or continue the longtime moratorium.
In the days leading up to the monumental vote, those polled on the street in Cherokee offered up the full range of views — along with those for and against it, some have yet to form an opinion or just don’t care — making it difficult to predict which side will prevail in the alcohol referendum. There are currently 6,717 enrolled members registered to vote.
Some businesses and churches are open about their dislike for a beverage that has caused so much heartache for families affected by alcoholism. Opponents have posted yard signs throughout the reservation telling people to vote “no to greed,” accusing supporters of putting economic tourism interests ahead of what’s best for local people.
“I kind of totally agree with the signs they have out,” said Regina Rosario, a former tribal council member and Painttown resident. Alcohol has never done anyone any good, Rosario added as she shopped in Food Lion in Cherokee last week.
However, Rosario wagers that she is probably in the minority.
“I think it’s going to pass because of the younger generation,” Rosario said.
Supporters of the referendum have said that alcohol will lead to an increases in tourism, which will lead to an increase in casino patrons, and in turn increase income for enrolled members.
“I think the main part of it is money,” said Megan Stanford, an 18-year-old enrolled member from Painttown.
Stanford, who is against selling alcohol on the reservation, said that people should listen to their elders who have more life experience.
However, for supporters, a ‘yes’ vote is a vote for the freedom to choose as well as additional prosperity for Cherokee.
“I think it’s people’s personal choices,” said Adrianne Petrilli, an enrolled member as she sat with her husband in Tribal Grounds Coffee. “I’d just like to have the option.”
Proponents have said that people need to look at the bigger picture, which is more revenue for the tribe.
Plus, if people want alcohol, all they need to do is drive to Bryson City or Sylva to find it, supporters of the referendum have said.
“They are going to get it anyway,” Petrilli said.
But opponents have said the easier access will only lead to higher rates of drinking problems among enrolled members.
“I am voting ‘no,’” said Owens Walkingstick, a member of the Yellowhill community. “If it’s harder to get it, it will be less people getting it.”
Even if the referendum is voted down, the reservation may still find gas stations selling beer cropping up at its doorstep.
Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary, and if approved, places selling alcohol could settle along the border of the reservation, which lies partly in Jackson County.
A few opponents have said that that fact will not influence their vote, however.
“I would rather just let Jackson County handle that,” Walkingstick said.
A couple of enrolled members indicated that they plan to stay out of the argument and will likely not vote Thursday.
Charles Tchakeirides, a 28-year-old resident of Birdtown, said he is undecided about whether alcohol should be sold on the reservation.
“People are going to get it regardless,” Tchakeirides said. “I think a lot of young people will vote for it.”
Nadine Tramper was blasé about the matter, though she could save gas money if alcohol was available in Cherokee, she said.
“It doesn’t bother me. I really don’t care,” said Tramper, of Big Cove.
Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will head to the polls Thursday, April 12, to vote on whether the reservation should remain dry. They can approve all, none, or some of the following:
• To permit the sale of beer, wine and mixed-drinks drinks to consume on-premise in restaurants.
• To permit the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores and convenience stores.
• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.
The vote will be decided on a community-by-community basis for each of Cherokee’s six townships. One community can open the door for alcohol sales while another can keep the ban.
However, the referendum must garner an overall majority of votes reservation-wide for any one community to enact alcohol sales.
In one week, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will choose to either lift a historic ban on alcohol or maintain its dry status in a vote that has traditionally sparked fervor on both sides.
On April 12, enrolled members will head to the polls for the first time in two decades to vote on legalizing alcohol sales. But in the run-up to the election, the debate has remained surprisingly non-contentious compared to previous years when the alcohol issue has arisen.
While an anti-alcohol movement is still present on the reservation, compared to previous years, its omnipotent voice has been less prominent this time around — signaling a possible philosophical shift among enrolled members.
In the past, a large majority of enrolled members fell on the opposing side — overwhelmingly rejecting a similar measure by a 3-to-1 margin two decades ago and in other years stopping a vote before it could even take place.
Simply having the opportunity to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ denotes “a remarkable change in culture,” said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board.
“It will probably pass,” Rose said. “The people who I talk to are by and large for it.”
However, Rose admitted that those staunchly opposed to the referendum would be less inclined to talk to him since he has openly advocated for a ‘yes’ vote.
From his point-of-view, it won’t lead to an increase in drinking, Rose said. People who want alcohol now will find it no matter what — which usually means driving in to Bryson City — a fact that referendum supporters say leads to more drunken driving.
“I think people see the logic,” Rose said. “Prohibition does not work.”
If people are allowed to buy alcohol in Cherokee, many local residents will opt to drink in the safety of their home, supporters have said.
For years, various leaders in Cherokee have championed the idea of making the reservation a year-round destination for vacationers. However, business owners have said that destination status is unattainable without alcohol, and they have lost customers because the reservation is dry.
“The realization (is) that if we are going to be able to compete … then we have to provide the amenities that they expect to see,” Rose said.
If visitors can order a beer or glass of wine with their dinners out, then they will be more likely to stay and spend their money in Cherokee — giving the reservation an economic boost.
Revenue from the alcohol sales could also help pay for substance abuse education and prevention as well as a rehabilitation center for addicts. Plans for a rehab center have long been discussed, but no blueprints have ever been drawn up.
Rose is a member of a “vote yes” campaign committee, mostly comprised of Cherokee business owners, who have organized to advocate for the referendum’s approval. The group has taken out ads in newspapers and traveled around the reservation talking to enrolled members.
A few days before the vote, the committee will hold a phone bank reminding people to vote and asking them to approve the referendum.
And, even if the referendum is struck down, alcohol could still find its way to the Cherokee’s doorstep. Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary. If approved, an ABC store or gas stations selling beer could open up along the border of the reservation anyway, which lies partly in Jackson County.
Enrolled members have a long history of opposing the sale of alcohol on the reservation. Many cite religious convictions and a trend of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.
“I am definitely against it,” said Greg Morgan, pastor at Rock Springs Baptist Church in Cherokee. “It takes people’s lives downhill.”
Morgan said he has enough experience working with families affected by alcoholism to know that it does more harm than good. Money needed for food goes to booze instead. It leads to increased rates of domestic violence and causes people to act abnormally, from drunken driving to public intoxication.
Easier access to alcohol will only translate to more problems rather than greater control over the substance, Morgan said.
“I don’t think that anybody can control alcohol,” Morgan said.
And, any possible economic benefits of selling alcohol on the reservation would be negated by the harm it would cause enrolled members, Morgan said. An individual’s life is worth more than any money earned from the sales, and Cherokee can prosper without alcohol to boost its bottom line.
“The sellers are trying to make it like Cherokee is not going to survive without alcohol,” Morgan said.
Morgan accused supporters of using the allure of bigger casino disbursements to convince some enrolled members, particularly the youth, to vote “yes.”
Tribal members receive a cut of casino profits. If alcohol leads to an increase in tourism, that will in turn benefit the casino, and the twice-annual per cap checks will go up, so the argument goes. But, that doesn’t hold water, Morgan said.
A similar claim was made in 2009 when a majority of the tribe voted to allow alcohol sales only on the premise of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. However, per cap checks have yet to show the increases that were promised, said members of the anti-alcohol movement.
Although he has not dedicated any more time to preaching about the dangers of alcohol since tribal council approved the referendum, Morgan said he will spend some time reviewing what the Bible states about the hard stuff with his parishioners this week leading up to the vote.
“In the Bible, it says we should not drink,” Morgan said.
Although one Bible story says Jesus turned water into wine, Morgan said that the fruit of the vine, as it is referred to in the story, was not fermented, meaning the drink was more like a grape juice rather than an intoxicating wine.
He and other opponents of the referendum, including other religious leaders, have already posted signs outside of their churches and businesses asking people to vote ‘no.’ Yard signs reading say “no to greed” are also placed around the reservation.
As for the vote in neighboring Jackson County in May, Morgan said that it is not his business.
“That’s their prerogative,” Morgan said.
Until the ballots are counted on April 12, it is difficult to predict how members of the Eastern Band will vote on the alcohol referendum — an issue with a long, controversial history.
Here’s a brief look back:
• In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated 1,532 to 601.
• In 1996, gaming commission director Patrick Lambert, requested tribal council members to consider holding another vote. However, an overwhelming amount of opposition forced tribal leaders to renege, and the vote was never held.
• In 2006, a similar series of events occurred when the idea was floated to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino but not anywhere else on the reservation. Tribal council shied away from the issue, and a vote was never held.
• In 2009, a petition drive landed the issue on the ballot. A surprising majority — 59 percent of those who voted — agreed to allow alcohol sales at the casino only. Opponents characterized it as the first step toward reservation-wide alcohol sales — a prediction that may or may not come to fruition next week.
• In late October last year, tribal council agreed to put reservation-wide alcohol sales to a vote of the people.
But, the Rev. Noah Crowe convinced tribal council members to modify the referendum’s wording to let each of the six communities in Cherokee vote on the issue for themselves, allowing one community to approve it but others not.