Opinion

The Flatlander

Private Clubs: Just the facts

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It’s hard to overstate the significance of an issue now before the Stone County Quorum Court that at least one justice calls “contentious.”

While alcohol sales and wet-dry issues across the state are, indeed, historically contentious, they carry significance well beyond the moral dilemma most frequently debated.

The morality issue may be an important one. But it’s not the only one. And this is a big deal for Stone County.

Let’s take a look at the facts, the issues at play, and the possible outcomes of a decision that could come Feb. 11 when the county quorum court will discuss the fate of a private club permit sought by Stone County resident Andy Wittchow, proprietor of the Minute Club at Highway 5 North and Blue Sky Road.

THE FACTS:

•In the 75 counties of Arkansas, 44 are wet, 31 are dry. Definitions and guidelines vary, but there is a strong case that Arkansas leads the nation in number of dry counties.

•Regarding sales protocol in wet counties: Each wet county is allocated one retail liquor permit (required to operate a liquor store) per 7,500 residents (based on the most recent census data available). The number was previously every 5,000 residents but was changed to 7,500 residents in 2019. So, if there are 12,500 people in Stone County, a vote favoring the wet designation would provide for only one store.

•The retail liquor permits are chosen by a blind draw at Arkansas Beverage Control Commission. While retail liquor permits are limited based on population, there is no limit to the number of beer and wine permits issued in a wet county.

ypothetically, every convenience store and grocery store in the county could sell beer and wine, but liquor sales (whiskey, vodka, rum, etc.,) are limited to the liquor stores. Beer and wine applications are not determined via draw, but simply by meeting the required qualifications and approval by ABC.

•Protocol for private club permit application is the same in a dry or a wet county, and must be accompanied by a letter of support from the local governing body.

•There is no limit on the number of private club permits that may be issued within a dry county. Generally, the number allowable is the number permitted by the local governing body (city council or quorum court).

•Of 31 dry counties with private clubs, Faulkner County is the “wettest” and leads the state with 98, followed by Craighead County with 94.

•When a local governing board approves an applicant’s request for a private club permit, the process then goes to the ABC. The commission then reaches out to local public officials, and their opinions may or may not affect the final approval. There are no immediate disqualifications.

•There is a private club permit designated especially to businesses operating as a bed and breakfast. Approval means the establishment may serve beer and wine only to registered guests.

•Permits are also permitted for microbrewery-restaurant operations allowing beer brewing containing not in excess of five percent alcohol by weight. The operator is allowed to brew one or more varieties of beer or malt beverage not exceeding 5,000 barrels in a year.

•Stone County’s last wet/dry referendum (different from the private club issue at hand) was in 1970 when the county uniquely existed as part wet, part dry, with 21 townships listed as wet. There were only two liquor stores, however located within miles of one another, both in extreme north Stone County. The 1970 referendum made all of Stone County dry, and it has remained so.

•The Mountain View City Council rejected its first private club application submitted by Mi Pueblito IV. The vote was unanimous and aldermen cited constituent tallies they had received via phone call and personal interaction.

•Angler’s Restaurant currently holds the county’s only private club permit, authorized before 2017 when applications were made directly to the ABC. No local governing board was necessary for approval.

ISSUES AT PLAY:

•Will JPs vote based on their own personal reasonings or via “will of the people?” Regarding the “will of the people” philosophy, it’s interesting to note that five United States presidential candidates supported by the will of the people were not elected to office, the most recent being Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. It can sometimes be easy to hide behind the will of the people.

•Though mostly unrelated, some point to the legal establishment of a marijuana dispensary established here in 2018 in the overall discussion about morality.

POSSIBLE OUTCOMES:

•The quorum court’s decision likely sets a precedent for future private club applications outside the jurisdiction of city limits. If they deny the permit, are all future permits denied? If they approve, does it open a floodgate?

•A vote denying the Minute Club permit likely creates a situational monopoly for the Angler’s establishment until Stone County residents vote in support of a wet county, thus changing the “will of the people.” No guarantee here, but likely the case.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

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Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com.

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