Voters agreed to expand alcohol sales in six North Carolina communities this month, and only one county — Anson — rejected a referendum on alcohol.
While the number of dry and partially dry towns and counties continues to drop, rural parts of the state continue to have a patchwork of regulations: Some places allow beer and wine sales but no liquor, while about 20 counties don’t allow alcohol sales in unincorporated areas.
Voters this year approved liquor drinks at bars and restaurants in Long View (a suburb of Hickory), Red Springs (Robeson County) and Pikeville (Wayne County). Voters in Boiling Springs decided to end its status as a dry town by allowing beer and wine sales, while Gaston County agreed to beer, wine, liquor and ABC stores in its unincorporated areas.
In Boiling Springs — the Cleveland County town of 4,700 that’s home to Gardner-Webb University — the addition of beer and wine is already bringing noticeable changes.
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Town Manager Lucas Shires said that previous attempts to make the change failed in part because it’s “a fairly conservative town.” Voters this year faced seven different ballot questions addressing different types of alcohol sales, and the margin of victory varied on each from 51 percent to 64 percent.
Now hotels, restaurants, gas stations and even a craft brewery are looking to take advantage of the change, Shires said. The town’s one grocery store plans to expand.
“It is definitely going to open up doors for new businesses to come in,” he added.
Gardner-Webb, a Christian university with 4,000 students, didn’t take a position for or against the referendum. But Shires says some hope the change means students looking for a drink will be able to walk to a restaurant or bar instead of driving 20 minutes to Shelby or Gaffney, S.C.
It’s a different story in Anson County, where voters overwhelmingly shot down sales of beer, wine and liquor.
Voters were particularly opposed to off-premises beer and wine sales at grocery and other stores, with more than 70 percent voting “no” on those ballot questions. Local leaders say the opposition movement was led by a group of small churches that set up a committee and bought signs.
While the conservative Christian Action League wasn’t involved in the Anson referendum, executive director Rev. Mark Creech said his group opposes expanded alcohol sales due to concerns about public health and safety.
“One of the very important means of minimizing alcohol-related harms is keeping the number of outlets down,” he said. “When you get multiple outlets, you end up with more alcohol sales and you get more alcohol-related problems.”
Creech said he’s glad the state leaves decisions about alcohol sales up to each community, which allows them to “decide their own destiny.” Anson County, however, is an outlier these days as most alcohol referenda are approved.
“Only 30 years ago, if you had an alcohol referendum, just about every mainline church in that community would form a committee and there would be a campaign to defeat that referendum,” Creech said. Now only a few churches opt to mount opposition campaigns as they focus political energy elsewhere on issues like abortion and marriage. “It’s not that they don’t care anymore, it’s just that the churches that put up the primary resistance have bigger issues to deal with today,” he said.
Anson County’s referendum was backed by the county’s Economic Development Partnership. Executive director John Marek says the push for alcohol in unincorporated areas stems from the upcoming opening of the Monroe Bypass. The new highway will shave 15 to 30 minutes off the commute from Charlotte to western Anson County, which has prompted interest from developers in building homes, shops, hotels and restaurants near the Anson-Union county line.
But Marek said developers aren’t willing to build in areas where alcohol sales are banned, so much of that growth will likely end up in the Marshville area of Union County, which does allow alcohol. “We felt like this was the opportunity for transformational growth,” he said. “What essentially is going to happen is that all of the commercial development ... is going to tend to locate on the Union County side.”
Under state law, Anson’s alcohol proponents can’t schedule another referendum until 2022, so anyone looking to buy alcohol will continue to go to the county seat of Wadesboro or to a neighboring county.
Anson is far from alone in allowing alcohol inside municipalities but not in unincorporated areas. Only one county — Graham County in the mountains — is completely dry, but about 20 don’t allow beer, wine and liquor in unincorporated areas.
And it’s not just conservative rural counties, as Buncombe, Cabarrus and Robeson are also partially dry, according to a list from the ABC Commission.
In Harnett, Lee and Moore counties, alcohol sales in unincorporated areas vary by township, adding to the confusion over where to buy beer. Retailers typically support efforts to standardize the rules.
“For retailers, for operations reasons, it does make things easier in terms of consistency, being able to sell the products and the same line of products,” said Elizabeth Robinson, a lobbyist for the N.C. Retail Merchants Association. “Most grocers usually operate on a 1- to 2-percent (profit) margin, so any ability they have to expand the line of products is helpful in terms of being able to offer customers what they want.”
But there’s no push to change the law at the state level to make uniform rules about alcohol sales. “There are fewer and fewer areas in North Carolina that are considered dry areas,” Robinson said. “The numbers are so small on this that we’re probably in a pretty good place.”