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Ballot question a matter of dollars and drinks

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Proponents of alcohol expansion say wet-dry vote is critical for downtown development

By Marty Finley

A mixed drink of apathy and confusion surrounding Tuesday’s alcohol vote in Elizabethtown has proponents of alcohol expansion making a final push for clarity regarding the election’s repercussions.

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Brad Richardson, a spokesman for Yes for Economic Success, said downtown Elizabethtown can find business without the availability of liquor drink licenses. But he thinks the vote’s failure could produce a “chilling effect” on economic development downtown.

Opponents, meanwhile, say a yes vote could boost the number of DUIs and vehicle crashes and exacerbate domestic violence.

During a petition push by Y.E.S., a volunteer organization formed by residents and economic development organizations in favor of more alcohol availability, canvassed neighborhoods looking for signatures and found residents confused about what they were asked to sign, Richardson said. Some thought alcohol sales were authorized fully in the city during the October 2011 wet-dry votes, which allowed package liquor stores and retail malt beverage sales in licensed businesses in Elizabethtown and Vine Grove, and fully wet status in Radcliff.

However, state law dictates fourth-class cities hold a separate election specifically targeting access to liquor drink licenses, which authorize the sale of distilled spirits and wine by the drink without a sales limitation or minimum seating requirement.

Richardson, who also is executive director of the Hardin County Chamber of Commerce, says the issue is less about social constraints and religion and more about economic development and investment in downtown.

Supporters of expanded sales say a successful second vote would ease “unnecessary” regulations downtown, making it friendlier toward prospective restaurants and small businesses.

“It’s harder to get the deal done (now),” Richardson said.

Heath Seymour, executive director of the Elizabethtown Heritage Council, has dedicated most of his time to redevelopment of downtown, which is seeing a net of roughly one new business per month.

But Seymour said his influence is limited by regulations not applied to cities with lively downtowns, such as Bardstown and Bowling Green.

“A lot of the most successful cities already do this,” he said. “It’s kind of the normal thing.”

Alcohol is available throughout the city in package stores, convenience stores and qualified restaurants. Seymour said downtown is at a disadvantage because of a state prohibition requiring licensed restaurants to generate a minimum of 70 percent of their sales from food and have seating for at least 100 patrons, he said.

The sales quota is less a concern than the seating requirement, he said, which is nearly impossible to meet in the existing buildings downtown. Most do not have space for a large dining area once kitchen equipment is installed, Seymour said.

“Basically, it’s just trying to level the field,” he said.

Seymour said downtown’s lack of eclectic businesses and restaurants may have an indirect impact on new industry. For example, a manufacturer considering three or four cities for a new factory may narrow its focus to the amenities available in the communities as part of its checklist. If Elizabethtown has a dilapidated downtown when compared to the remaining candidates, it will suffer for it.

“People look for that quality of life,” Seymour said.

Seymour also believes residents worried about the vote have an incorrect perspective on what it will accomplish. Because the number of licenses will be limited by the state, property owners will be unable to plant an alcohol establishment or bar anywhere they want. And a number of the licenses, he projected, will be awarded to existing businesses seeking to escape the sales requirements. The number of licenses available would be determined by the state should the vote pass, but Seymour believes Elizabethtown would be awarded no more than 12.

Seedy reputations attached to some wet cities often are inaccurate, Seymour argues. He said he would happily take his family to businesses in downtown Bowling Green and Bardstown and feel safe.

“They don’t have a lot of the problems people are thinking,” he said. “The assumption of a bar on every corner is unlikely.”

In fact, Seymour said he has not been approached by anyone wanting to open a bar but has been approached about possible restaurants in downtown. Should the vote fail, he said, it would stymie that progress.

“It’s harder to do business,” he said. “It’ll slow things down.”

Richardson said current regulations are undue, archaic burdens that must be stripped. He said Elizabethtown should have the same advantages enjoyed by Louisville and other wet cities.

“Would it be a death knell for (downtown development)?” Richardson asked. “I don’t think it would be a death knell. But it would be difficult and it’s unnecessary.”

Not everyone agrees with those sentiments.

John Board, pulpit minister at Elizabethtown Church of Christ, said it would be unwise to expand alcohol sales beyond the current limit, pointing to an uptick in DUIs after the October 2011 vote and the possibility for alcohol contributing to more domestic violence and physical abuse.

“We just really see a great danger of expanding alcohol sales further than they already have,” Board said.

The church vehemently opposed last year’s vote to expand alcohol sales and has purchased advertisements to rally voters to the polls Tuesday.

Board said wording of the ballot question confuses some voters. He has heard from residents who believe it is an attempt to repeal what was voted on last year or a rehash vote for something already passed. Board said he is unsure if residents understand the potential for standalone bars.

Ultimately, he said, the vote’s success would create more grief and pain for local families through drunken driving and violence.

County Clerk Kenny Tabb is expecting a low turnout for Tuesday’s vote. Elizabethtown’s 14 precincts are open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Only registered voters living within city limits may vote, Tabb said.

As of Friday afternoon, Tabb’s staff recorded 26 votes on the machine for absentee voters in the Hardin County Clerk’s Office. Only six absentee ballots had been shipped by mail.

“It’s been really light,” Tabb said.

Seymour said the issue could result in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the county’s history.

“The complacency could go either way,” he said.

But Seymour said it will be good for the city to put the vote behind it and find out where residents stand on the issue.

“Whether it passes or not, it will be helpful to know what’s going on,” he said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.

What does the ballot question ask?

When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will be faced with a single yes or no question asking, "Are you in favor of the sale of distilled spirits and wine by the drink for consumption on the premises in Elizabethtown, Kentucky?"

The 14 Elizabethtown precincts determining the vote are Highlands, Mantle, City Park, Freeman, Oaklawn, Central, Elizabethtown East, Elizabethtown North, Elizabethtown West, Valley Creek, Memorial, part of Pine Valley, Helmwood Heights and Van Meter.

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