Businesses in Cherokee are gearing up for a campaign aimed at convincing members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to vote ‘yes’ on a measure that could end the nearly reservation-wide moratorium on the sale of alcohol.
Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band, decided last Wednesday to allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.
“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people’s decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”
With the exception of Harrah’s Casino, Cherokee is dry. Restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations are not permitted to sell beer, wine or liquor.
Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.
The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.
In April, members of the Eastern Band will vote to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:
• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.
• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.
• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.
No matter which of the three items is approved, Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.
Hicks is OK with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine on the shelves of gas stations, and package stores cropping up across the reservation.
Instead, Hicks would prefer for the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.
Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribally operated ABC stores.
Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”
Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from rural areas of the reservation as well, such as the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.
The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.
The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.
Boon to business
Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might otherwise leave the reservation in search of alcohol.
Business owners met earlier this month to talk about ways to advocate for the passage of the referendum. They have formed a committee and several subcommittees to raise funds for their campaign, organize public forums and decide where to run promotional advertising.
Ninety days prior to the vote, which is expected to take place in mid-April, the committee will run advertising in newspapers and on billboards, encouraging tribe members to vote ‘yes’ and allow alcohol to be sold on the reservation. During the meeting, several people told stories of customers leaving and never returning because businesses cannot sell alcohol.
Telling people that they cannot buy alcohol on the reservation is a “very aggravating thing,” said Don Rose, a member of the Eastern Band, in a recent interview. Businesses in Cherokee could compete with those in surrounding towns if they are allowed to sell alcohol. Currently, visitors must travel to Bryson City or Sylva to purchase alcohol — or even to have a glass of wine with their meal.
“We are just trying to catch up with the rest of the world,” Rose said.
The Cherokee Chamber of Commerce and Rose agree with Hicks that businesses should purchase their alcohol from a tribally owned ABC store.
“That would be a definite benefit to have the money stay here,” said Matt Pegg, head of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “There are a lot of things we could do with that.”
Pegg emphasized that businesses would be under strict regulations regarding the sale of alcohol. The tribal ABC Commission would license individual businesses and teach owners and employees about their legal responsibilities as an alcohol reseller. A business could lose its license for violating regulations once.
“It wouldn’t just be a free for all,” Pegg said.
The tribe would reap the benefits of alcohol sales by funneling sales through its own ABC store.
Although both tribal council and Hicks approved the referendum, the battle to allow alcohol on the reservation is far from over. Many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.
The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.
The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.