Berea Mayor Steven Connelly is asking residents to sign a petition for a local-option vote to allow alcohol sales in qualifying restaurants.
Except for historic Boone Tavern, which started selling alcohol by the drink last year, Berea is a dry community. Connelly said the petition drive is an economic-development effort designed to build on the city's strength as an arts-and-crafts mecca for tourists.
"In a time when small towns are still trying to recover from the greatest recession we've had since the Great Depression, to not take advantage of this is a missed opportunity for Berea," Connelly said.
If the ballot measure passes, Berea would not have bars and package stores like neighboring Richmond. Connelly said the measure would allow only sales of alcohol by the glass in restaurants that seat at least 50 and that derive at least 70 percent of their gross receipts from the sale of food.
Berea City Council's economic development committee reviewed materials to be mailed for the petition drive, which needs 1,058 verified signatures to put the alcohol question on the ballot. Connelly said obtaining that number "is doable," even though some residents have expressed opposition to alcohol sales.
Among the opponents is the Rev. Kenny Davis Jr., pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.
"We hear about all the wonderful economic benefits of bringing alcohol to a city, but nobody seems really concerned about the social cost," Davis said. "I see families that are broken. I see marriages that are destroyed. I see children that are neglected because of alcohol. And not everybody that drinks is an alcoholic, I realize that. But the potential is there for abuse on a lot of different levels."
If the county clerk verifies that there are enough petition signatures, Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor will be asked to schedule a local-option election in September.
Since October, alcohol has been sold by the drink at Boone Tavern, a 106-year-old restaurant owned by Berea College.
Limited alcohol sales by the glass were approved in 2012 in the single voting precinct containing Boone Tavern, but Berea College didn't allow actual sales to start until last year. (Alcohol is still prohibited on the college campus.)
A 2006 state law allowed local-option elections for precincts with sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places that also have restaurants and lodging, such as Boone Tavern.
"So now we have one legitimate place of sale, which is linked to the college, a wonderful institution," Connelly said. "Why should our other restaurants not be able to also do the same thing that Boone Tavern is doing very well?"
Jerome Lewis, co-owner of Papaleno's restaurant, said he would be interested in offering alcohol to customers.
"A lot of people ask for a beer or wine," Lewis said. "We're kind of Italian, we have pizza, so it kind of fits us pretty good.
"A lot of people I know leave Berea and take their money either south or north. They say, 'I'd really like to have a beer' or 'I'd like to have a glass of wine.' And I feel bad that I can't offer them that."
Two wet-dry votes that would have allowed alcohol sales within the entire city limits of Berea were defeated in 2000 and 2007.
Last fall, another petition drive to have the city go fully "wet" and allow bars and package sales failed to get the required number of signatures, Connelly said.
The materials being mailed now to residents include a letter signed by Connelly, on "City of Berea, Mayor's Office" letterhead, asking residents to complete, sign and return the petition card.
"I have included additional cards to allow you to recruit other Berea voters who support the project," Connelly's letter states. "If you know such Berea voters, please ask them to complete and sign the cards. Then you can return them with your own card in the enclosed envelope."
If Berea voters approve alcohol-by-the-drink in this latest effort, the city stands to gain revenue through the net profits tax from additional retail sales and through the occupational license fees from additional employment, Connelly said.
The petition drive isn't necessarily to attract bigger restaurants to Berea, Connelly said, but to promote locally owned eateries. And even if the measure got on the ballot and was approved by voters, some restaurants would not want to serve alcohol.
A 2010 study estimated that revenue from an existing restaurant tax could increase by 20 percent if alcohol was sold, said Belle Jackson, executive director of Berea's tourism commission. After a period of time, the estimated tax revenue could increase by 30 percent, the study said.
As allowed by state law, revenue from the restaurant tax funds the commission, which will pay for the mailing of the petition-drive materials. Jackson said she didn't know how much the mailing would cost.
Nevertheless, the Rev. Ken Felty of Liberty Avenue Baptist Church questions the use of tax dollars to pay for the petition drive.
"This is a cost to the taxpayers. I don't know why the mayor has done that," Felty said.
Connelly took note of something else which he thinks is related to the availability of alcohol.
"It used to be, 50 years ago, when we got a business, we would have the management living in Berea and they would be some of our most involved citizens," Connelly said. "But now, if you look at our manufacturing plants, eight or 10 of our top ones, you don't find presidents living here. You find the significant management living in Lexington and Richmond. I can't help but think it's in part because of the small-town, dry nature of Berea."
Davis, the pastor of Bethel Baptist, said he anticipated that organized opposition would arise should the measure get on the ballot.
"We have organized and fought it every time it has come up in the past, and we'll continue to do that," he said.
The city began sending petition-drive letters, fact sheets and signature cards to residents last week; another batch will be mailed this week. About 9,000 mailers will be sent , City Administrator Randy Stone said.
Residents are asked to sign and return the petition cards by April 15.