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Vote could turn Lancaster "wet'

LANCASTER — Temperance crusader Carry A. Nation, who campaigned against alcohol and took a hatchet to saloons in the late 1890s and early 1900s, was born in 1846 near Herrington Lake north of here.

Nation wasn't shy in voicing her feelings about alcohol. She was often jailed for ”hatchetation,“ her term for the destruction of drinking places.

By contrast, locals say they've had a hard time gauging what the outcome will be Tuesday, when voters in the city of Lancaster will decide whether to allow the legal sale of alcohol.

No one in the town of 4,500 can confidently predict which way the vote will go, not even Lancaster Mayor Don Rinthen, who supports going ”wet.“

”It's been one of the most quiet things,“ Rinthen said. ”There hasn't been much talk negatively or positively — to me anyway — about the subject.“

Likewise, Michael York, interim pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church, also said ”it has been quiet.“

He is an organizer and spokesman for CALL, or Citizens Against Legalized Liquor, a coalition of churches and residents who oppose alcohol sales.

”As a minister, I worry that people tell me what they think I want to hear,“ York said. ”But if the people who have spoken to me and told me that they are going to vote against it, if the people who have stood up stay diligent, I feel really good about it.“

If yard signs and banners are any indication, many more citizens express opposition to alcohol sales than support. CALL has ”vote no“ signs all over town.

One property owner on the east side of town displays a sign that says ”Save Gas, Vote Yes,“ a reference to the fact that Garrard residents must drive to Richmond or Nicholasville or even Lexington to legally buy alcohol for home consumption.

What's at stake

This election is different from some recent referendums in Kentucky.

What's at stake isn't just the sale of alcohol in restaurants, which nearby towns such as Danville and Harrodsburg have approved. Such limited sales have proven easier to swallow for voters who desire alcohol with a meal but who don't want bars.

But if Lancaster goes ”wet,“ an unlimited number of retail stores could sell beer, according to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Gas stations could sell beer if they maintain an inventory of at least $5,000 in food and groceries. Retail liquor could be sold by the package in as many as seven outlets. Restaurants could not sell liquor or mixed drinks without a special ordinance, but they could sell wine if they seat 50 people and have 50 percent of their gross receipts from food sales. The city could have bars that serve beer, but there would have to be another election for bars to serve liquor.

No licenses to sell alcohol would be approved or issued until 60 days after the election results have been certified, said Nathan Jones, staff assistant for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Courting new business

Alcohol opponents argue that making beer, wine and liquor more available adds to the potential for problems such as addiction, drunken driving, domestic abuse and other crimes.

”It's going to further depress the economy, increase poverty, increase the spending on social services and it's just not going to help this city,“ York said.

Alcohol supporters contend that the ability to sell alcohol can attract new restaurants and jobs, boost tourism spending and city revenue, and help in the quest for industrial development.

Nathan Mick, economic development director for Garrard County, cites the example of a California company that had considered putting a distribution center with 50 jobs in Lancaster. But the company decided against Lancaster, and one executive told Mick: ”I can't relocate my employees to a place that doesn't have the same amenities that they're used to, and that includes living in a wet county.“

Lancaster has a McDonald's, a Subway and a Mexican restaurant that opened in the spring. But there are few other dining options for visitors.

York doubts that any chain restaurant that typically serves alcohol would locate in Lancaster because it's too small.

”We're saying that the energy that's been spent trying to court restaurants and trying to court liquor stores should be spent trying to entice light manufacturers or small businesses,“ York said.

Local officials hope to renovate Lancaster's Grand Theater, which opened in 1925 and closed in 1965, as a place for live entertainment.

But in order for it to be successful, ”you have to bring people in from Lexington and Richmond and Somerset,“ Mick said. ”When people come to a show, they want to have a nice meal before the show, and we want to offer more restaurants here as choices,“ he said.

Louisville businessman Mike Czerwonka has proposed to build a 50-room lodge, spa and resort on property optioned by the state. The land is 14 miles north of Lancaster, near Peninsula Golf Resort on Herrington Lake in northern Garrard County. But Czerwonka said in an interview last week that the $25 million resort project won't be done if Lancaster voters reject alcohol sales.

Why does a project in the county hinge on whether alcohol sales are allowed within the city limits of Lancaster?

If a city votes to allow alcohol sales, then a county precinct with a golf course, historic site or winery could also have an alcohol referendum. For example, Nicholasville is wet, but two Jessamine County precincts outside the city with golf courses and another with a winery have voted to allow sales at those sites. So if Lancaster goes wet, Czerwonka said that would open the possibility for a precinct election that would allow the golf course to serve alcohol.

”In this day and age, in order to attract conferences and meetings and people to your resort, you need to be able to offer a full-service amenity package, and that includes being able to have a glass of wine with dinner and being able to have a drink before dinner,“ Czerwonka said. ”It's just one of those understood issues that comes with business development.“

York said opponents of alcohol sales have suspected the city election ”is merely a bridge to sell alcohol in the county and at the (proposed) state lodge. People in the community feel that is the purpose of this election.“

Under state law, if Lancaster rejects alcohol sales, it would not be able to have another local-option election for three years. In the meantime, York said the side that is most diligent in getting its message out and in getting voters to the polls will win.

”If the people who have voiced their opposition to me vote against it, I think it will fail,“ York said. ”But the thing is, come the 19th, once somebody goes behind that curtain (in the voting booth), they can do whatever they want.“

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