SOMERSET — Residents voted Tuesday to end Somerset's status as the largest city in Kentucky that had not approved any form of legal alcohol sales.
In unofficial returns, the vote was 2,167 to 1,464 in favor of making the city wet, a margin of 59.7 percent to 40.3 percent.
The margin surprised some observers. Local voters had defeated proposals for alcohol sales by wide margins in past elections, and churches had worked to push a no vote Tuesday.
The city has been legally dry for generations, putting Prohibition back in place after the national ban on alcohol sales ended in the 1930s.
Dave Weddle, a Somerset businessman who led the effort to legalize sales, said he thought the vote showed a desire by people to boost the local economy.
Legal alcohol sales in the city of about 11,200 will bring jobs at package stores, restaurants and other businesses; a wider selection of restaurants; and more revenue for the city, supporters argued.
Weddle said the local economy stands to get an even bigger boost from alcohol sales because Somerset is near Lake Cumberland. The lake brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors from other states each summer, many from places with legal sales.
"I don't think we can even fathom what this will mean for the city," Weddle said after the vote.
Opponents had argued that legal sales could lead to more problems with alcohol, including underage drinking.
Some people were concerned that the character of the city would change with legal alcohol sales, and many who voted no did so based on religious conviction against alcohol use.
Much of the opposition to legalizing sales was church-based, said Ed Amundson, pastor at High Street Baptist Church and spokesman for the dry campaign.
Amundson said the issue had divided the community. Opponents of alcohol sales hope friends, neighbors and co-workers who split over the issue will reconcile, he said.
"At the end of the day, our yes in Jesus Christ is still bigger than our no to alcohol," he said after the vote.
The vote was to make the city fully wet, with a projection for it to have at least four package stores, as well as sales at other businesses.
Sales will not begin immediately. The state will vet license applicants, and the city has two months to write ordinances regulating sales.
Weddle said sales might begin by Labor Day.
Berea had been the biggest city in the state without approved alcohol sales. Residents there voted in April to let historic Boone Tavern sell alcohol. However, its owner, Berea College, has not decided whether to allow that.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1