The drive from Pikeville to Elkhorn City begins like any other in Eastern Kentucky.
Route 460, as do many thoroughfares of the mountains, follows the river. It winds between steep ridges where cliffs protrude through the trees and reveal themselves with the coming winter.
As the driver approaches Elkhorn City, Pine Mountain comes into view. The ridge is taller, longer, and generally more imposing than most in Eastern Kentucky. The section of the ridge near Elkhorn marks the Virginia border and is home to Breaks Interstate Park, where scores of kayakers flock every year to float the treacherous section of the Russell Fork river that cuts through the mountain.
Elkhorn City acts as a gateway to the park and the whitewater section of the Russell Fork, and the people who live there have found themselves at a crossroads.
On Nov. 5, the city’s 900 residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcohol, possibly overturning a decades-long ban and becoming the only Pike County community outside of Pikeville to go ‘wet.’
The vote has serious implications for both sides. Supporters of the ‘wet’ side argue that alcohol could bolster the city’s tourism industry, which, they argue, could serve as a potential economic driver in a community with few other options.
On the ‘dry’ side, advocates warn that alcohol sales will increase drunk driving incidents, force the city to hire additional police officers, and disturb Elkhorn’s family-friendly character and its elderly residents.
“It kills. People drink, they drive, they hit people,” said Matilda Boyd, a retired Elkhorn City resident with anti-alcohol signs outside her house. “Drugs in this area are bad enough, and we don’t need to add anything else.”
Multiple city council members said they aren’t sure how the vote will go.
The mayor, Mike Taylor, is outspokenly against the sale of alcohol. Multiple city council members disagree, leading to a split that has proven unusually contentious for this typically tight-knit community. Both sides urged civility during recent interviews.
The churches, which hold significant pull among many residents, are largely against it. Many have signs along their fences or in their yards. One sign reads: “See Clearly. Vote No.”
Like many small towns in Eastern Kentucky, many of the storefront buildings in downtown Elkhorn City are vacant. The city’s leadership unanimously sees tourism as a potential money-maker, but is split on whether alcohol would do more harm than good.
Elkhorn is a designated “Trail Town” because of its proximity to the Pine Mountain Trail, which runs 42 miles along the ridge from Elkhorn City to Jenkins, in Letcher County. The town also sees a substantial amount of traffic from the kayaking community.
‘We’re missing out on a lot of money’
The issue, ‘wet’ advocates said, is that kayakers and hikers on their way to the Breaks and the Pine Mountain Trail have little incentive to stop in Elkhorn City. There’s no motel, and the few restaurants in downtown do not serve alcohol.
A railroad museum and community theater bring in some traffic, but few other businesses can operate with the limited number of tourists who decide to stop.
“We’re missing out on a lot of money that people would ordinarily spend,” said Roger Copley, a city council member.
Copley said new businesses, such as motels, would be more likely to set up shop in Elkhorn City if local restaurants were able to serve alcohol. He said the increased traffic from tourists could create incentive to open other small businesses, generating tax revenue and creating a more vibrant community.
“We need to get as many tourists coming to Elkhorn as we can, cause that’s all we have here,” Copley said. “The only way we have of growing our town is to have tourists coming in, so we have to do things to invite people.”
Earlier this month, Taylor, the mayor, distributed a pamphlet warning residents about the dangers of alcohol and the impact it could have on the community.
The pamphlet included quotes from local pastors and information about how the city would spend tax revenue from alcohol sales.
“We understand that we cannot keep people from drinking. We also understand that alcohol is sold not too many miles from us,” Frank Crum, minister at Elkhorn City Church of Christ, said on the pamphlet. “Knowing the potential to destroy like it does, why would we want to bring it any closer to us than it already is? Let’s send our children a strong message by keeping Elkhorn City ... dry.”
The notion of increased drunk driving is possibly the most pressing concern to Taylor, whose sister’s fiance was killed by a drunk driver just outside the city limits.
“It’s already bad as it is right now, and we’re not even wet,” he said.
Taylor’s opponents on this issue, including city council member Roxanne Blankenship, argue that Elkhorn’s ‘dry’ status forces residents to drive longer distances to get alcohol, increasing the risk of drunk driving.
From Elkhorn City, the nearest place to buy alcohol is just over the Virginia border. To drink at a restaurant, most residents would drive to Pikeville, about 25 minutes away.
Alcohol sales in Eastern Kentucky
Fifteen of Kentucky’s 120 counties are completely dry, according to January 2019 data from the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. About half of those are in Eastern Kentucky.
Several other Eastern Kentucky counties are moist, meaning they allow alcohol sales only in certain precincts. Pike, Letcher, Harlan, Martin and Johnson counties all fall under this category.
The city of Harlan will also hold a vote this election day to allow package sales of alcohol — restaurants are currently allowed to sell alcohol by the drink, provided they make 70 percent of their revenue from food sales.
Last year, Powell County, which is home to the Red River Gorge, a popular hiking and rock climbing destination, voted to go wet.
Eddie Barnes, a deputy with the Powell County Sheriff’s Office, said drunk driving has actually decreased since alcohol sales went into effect, and the county has benefited from increased tax revenue.
Before Powell County’s ‘wet’ vote, residents would drive to neighboring counties to buy alcohol, and would sometimes drink on the way home. Now, people are more likely to wait until they get home because of the shorter drives, he said.
“As far as I’m concerned, here it’s actually went down rather than going up, and as far as alcohol related arrests, I can’t tell the difference,” Barnes said. “Here they were tore up thinking it’s just gonna be full-on DUI city. That’s not true. It’s helped in both ways, as far as tax revenue and keeping people from drinking and driving.”
‘It’s a beginning’
In Elkhorn City, approval of an alcohol ordinance would allow package sales, and allow restaurants to serve alcohol by the drink if they make a certain percentage of their revenue from food sales.
Blankenship said none of Elkhorn’s city council members would vote to allow bars.
Direct taxes from alcohol sales cannot go to a city’s general fund, according to Kentucky statutes and administrative regulations. Instead, the taxes can only be spent on administration and enforcement of alcohol policies, such as office supplies and additional policing expenses.
Taylor said he believes the city would need two additional full-time police officers to cope with alcohol sales. He said the city would need to raise taxes to fund those positions, raising the cost of living among elderly residents on fixed incomes.
Blankenship disputes the idea that the city would need to hire new police officers. She also said the city would see increased tax revenue from businesses that open as a result of alcohol sales, and from the increased traffic that existing businesses would see.
“I think going wet will be a first step to our future for Elkhorn City to develop economically and as a tourist attraction, and to attract more businesses and more visitors into the town,” Blankenship said. “It’s not our complete answer to our problems, but it’s a beginning.”