A group calling itself “Vote for Growth in Drew County” is hoping to collect enough signatures to put a “wet-dry” issue on the November 2012 general election ballot for Marion Township in Drew County. Marion Township includes Monticello.

At an informational meeting at the Monticello Country Club Tuesday night, Monticello businessman Ron Echols cited economic reasons for pursuing the issue. He said Monticello would see increased economic activity, more jobs, increased tourism, more restaurants and retail businesses, and an increase in tax revenue if Marion Township allowed the sale of alcohol.

“Most people enjoy an alcoholic beverage on occasion and when you’re prohibited from buying it at the local level others view it as backward and that’s not the image we want to project,” Echols said, adding that it can be difficult to recruit highly educated people to the university, hospital, and industries because of that perception.

“Many people in the surrounding counties buy virtually everything in Drew County but then have to turn around and drive the other way to buy alcoholic beverages,” he said.

Citing research by the Small Business Development Center at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Monticello businessman Tom Wingard said Marion Township is losing a minimum of $730,000 a year in retail sales as a result of not being wet.

“That’s Drew County money that’s being spent somewhere else that could be here and used for us,” Wingard said. “That’s just one of the benefits of making Marion Township wet, keeping sales tax dollars here.”

Wingard said the $730,000 figure only includes sales from package stores, it does not include the potential sale of drinks in restaurants. “We’re going to get some more information on what would happen if we got restaurants in here that sold beer or wine and how much we could draw (from surrounding cities).”

Addressing the issue of increased traffic accidents and DUIs as a result of being wet, Echols said that was not the case in three cities that recently voted to allow alcohol sales.

“A lot of people are going to say ‘yes, but you’ll have more DUIs’ and so on and so forth,” Echols said. “Three cities — Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Cullman, Alabama, and Lubbock, Texas — all reported in newspapers that after they went wet the number of DUIs and traffic fatalities actually decreased, so that’s not a valid argument.”

Dr. John Tadesco, a new surgeon in Monticello, said “going wet” is important to commerce.

“This area is in a perfect location, that’s one of the reasons I chose to start my business here,” Tadesco said. “It’s almost equal distance from every major metropolitan area in the region — Monroe, Little Rock, Greenville, etc…. When the highways come through here, this is the type of place that’s an hour and a half from any given city. It’s the place where you want restaurants, convenience stores, hotels, etc…. That kind of growth needs to start happening now so that when the highways are built this is already an established stop.”

Tadesco, who is from Pennsylvania, said being “dry” is completely foreign to him.

“For my personal convenience, I want to be able to go to Applebee’s and watch a football game and drink a beer but more importantly, for commerce in the area, I think it’s important to take a step into the twenty-first century — really the twentieth century in reality — and start getting more interest from Outback, Applebee’s and other chain restaurants that have already expressed interest but won’t come here because they can’t sell alcohol. Heck, I’d open up a Chili’s tomorrow if I could get a license.”

Tedesco said he is strongly in favor of the proposal because Drew County is losing a massive amount of money because it is dry.

Echols then turned the meeting over to Nathan Chaney, the attorney who guided wet proponents in Clark and Boone counties where voters approved the sale of alcohol.

Chaney said wet counties generally grow faster than dry counties and had Arkadelphia not approved the sale of alcohol in the last election, that city would be in the red this year. “But we’re doing OK now because we’re bringing that tax revenue in from other counties,” he said.

Asked how much support the wet proponents had from the business community in Arkadelphia, Chaney said they had the support of pretty much all of the business leaders.

“Most of them were not public about it but if you got them one-on-one into a conversation they’d say ‘yeah, I’m going to support you, here’s some money’ but they weren’t on the front lines,” he said.

Waging a campaign to get the issue on the ballot could be quite expensive. Clark County had a budget of $54,000 and Boone County had a budget of  $92,000. Of that, Clark County spent $30,000 to hire a company to collect signatures and Boone County spent $65,000 of its budget for the same purpose. The issue passed in both of those counties.

“With help from volunteers, we think we can hold our expenses to less than $25,000.” Echols said.

Echols said the group will have to collect the signatures of 38 percent — roughly 2,141 — of the Marion Township electors to get the issue on the ballot.

If approved, the law allows the sale of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores and one liquor store per 4,000 population —  in this case, three. Since there are already two existing liquor permits in the wet Live Oak Township, which would be grandfathered, there would only be one permit issued for Marion Township, according to Echols.

A second election, which would be a city-wide special election rather than a township-wide general election, would be required to sell mixed drinks in restaurants. “That election is key for tax revenue because you can tax mixed drinks at a higher rate than beer and wine,” Chaney said.

The group hopes to have all of the legal work completed in time to begin collecting signatures in December. The petition must be submitted to the county clerk 90 days prior to the election.

“It’s time to put this on the ballot and give people the right to vote on it,” Echols said.

There was no one at the meeting to speak against the proposal.