Mum’s the word from many Rankin County voters on the upcoming controversial liquor referendum.
“We’re really not making any comments right now,” said a manager at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar in Flowood. “That’s pretty much our stance … whatever the community wants. We were told strictly to stay away from comments on the alcohol business.”
Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said he hasn’t heard much from restaurateurs individually or collectively about the business development aspect of the issue.
“As an association, we do not have a specific position on Rankin County, but typically support the option to sell liquor,” he said.
Dr. Catherine Price, professor of tourism management at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the importance of liquor sales varies widely but location is often the determining factor.
“I will say that liquor is easily the highest profit item for a restaurant,” she said.
Gale Martin, executive director of the Rankin County Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that some businesses are concerned about a backlash if they publicly favor the liquor vote.
“Nobody has just come out and said, ‘If I do this, folks are going to quit coming to my business,’” he said. “Restaurants support it, but the more vocal support is coming from restaurants outside the county wanting to relocate or establish additional restaurants here.”
Even though more chamber members have called to say they’re against selling liquor in Rankin County, the chamber board has not taken a position on the matter.
“The citizens will decide how it needs to go,” said Martin. “We’ll work with businesses any way the vote goes.”
The county is so split on the issue that “it’s too close to call, as close as the president’s race on a national basis,” said Martin. “There are still a lot of undecideds, and I think the result will occur from something that happens at the last minute to sway people.”
Southern Research Group owner Dan Davis, a Rankin County resident who serves as chairman of Rankin Tomorrow, a pro-business group lobbying for liquor sales in Rankin County, said the November 2 election “will mark the third time the dry laws have been voted on in recent memory, and with each election, the law has edged closer to being repealed. An issue such as this will always involve people with passionate views. What we must do, as citizens, is look beyond that and see what is in the best interest of the community.”
NO-AL spokesperson Rick Henson, pastor of Oakdale Baptist Church in Brandon, said there are moral and economic concerns about liquor sales in Rankin County.
“The facts just don’t back up the claims that we are missing business opportunities as long as we are dry,” he said. “One of the arguments of those for liquor sales is a circular argument: we cannot have a full-service hotel or a full-service restaurant as long as we cannot sell liquor. Their definition of a full-service hotel and restaurant is one that can sell liquor. Isn’t that the point of the vote?
“In 1995, Rankin County voters were told that if they did not approve the sale of liquor, economic development would dry up because sophisticated businesses would not locate here. (Fifty-nine percent voted no for an identical referendum in 1995.) Today, Rankin is the fastest-developing county in the state, with the lowest unemployment and highest per capita income. According to The Clarion-Ledger, October 18, 2004, business section, home sales in Madison County increased by over 15%, and in Hinds County by 16% from 2002 to 2003. Rankin County, however, had a 30% increase in home sales. This week’s edition of the Rankin Chamber of Commerce magazine, Welcome Home, tells some great statistics. Seven new people a day move into Rankin County. Since 2003, 450 new businesses have opened. Those naysayers were wrong in 1995 and they are wrong today.”
Davis responded: “While I admire Mr. Henson’s passion, I disagree with his speculation on what will happen to Rankin County. To assume that bars will dot the landscape misses the reality of what happens in any community: businesses open based on supply and demand. The other reality is, thanks to the State of Mississippi, we already have existing laws that forbid the selling of alcohol anywhere in the county; sales are strictly limited to cities and municipalities. Further restrictions even limit alcohol sales to businesses that generate 25% of their revenue from food. On the city or municipal level, businesses must adhere to appearance and location codes if they wish to operate. These local regulations might sound familiar. That’s because places like Madison County already have them. Surely, residents in Rankin County are just as responsible as residents of Madison County? My opponents disagree.”
Henson said that Rankin Tomorrow claims more money will be generated if Rankin countians vote to sell liquor, “but serious inquiry does not show that to be true.”
“Go to the Mississippi State Tax Commission’s Web site (www.mstc.state.ms.us), click on ‘Statistics’ and then ‘2003’ and you will see their claims aren’t true,” he said. “In
Hinds County last year, the average restaurant collected about $40,000 in taxes, and in Madison County about $41,000. But the restaurants in Rankin County collected over $48,000, 20% more than Hinds County restaurants, all without selling liquor. Gross-sales per restaurant were also 20% higher than Hinds County, or about $120,000 more in annual gross sales, again, without selling liquor. If we have been penalized by not selling liquor, then how come the restaurants in Rankin County collect more taxes and have more sales than those in Hinds and Madison?”
Even though the county will receive incremental revenue from liquor sales, the greatest potential lies with additional businesses that will locate to the area, said Davis.
“Businesses such as the Bass Pro Shop will come regardless of what the law is because it does not impact their sales,” he said. “However, other businesses will utilize the opportunity to expand or develop in our area such as hotels, restaurants and even large-scale resorts. The bottom line is that Rankin County will profit from this growth.”
In Mississippi, only 26 counties remain dry. For fiscal year 2003, the Mississippi State Tax Commission reported $66.7 million in taxes from liquor sales, with $2 million transferred back to the cities and counties where the sales originated. Of the 21,609 Mississippians convicted of driving under the influence in 2001, approximately one-fifth were repeat offenders.
Henson pointed out that voters should peruse the BellSouth yellow pages, “The Yellow Book” and Rankin County phone books “to see the difference this vote can make.”
“In the BellSouth yellow pages are nine bars, 72 liquor stores, 42 nightclubs and 41 alcohol treatment centers,” he said. “All of these are in Hinds and Madison County, except one of those treatment centers is in Rankin County. In ‘The Yellow Book,’ we find 18 bars, 68 liquor stores, 42 nightclubs, and 38 alcohol treatment centers. In the Rankin County Gulf States phone book, we find zero bars, zero liquor stores, zero nightclubs and only two alcohol treatment centers. Which county sounds more attractive to new businesses to you?
“Since we have a Bass Pro Shop, the Mississippi Braves and a Hilton Gardens Hotel and Conference Center coming to Rankin County, new shopping centers, and new restaurants opening monthly, I seriously wonder if we need the type of businesses listed in the phone book under the above categories.
“In addition to the ruined lives, marriages and careers, and the people killed on our highways, those in favor simply have not presented a good enough argument to show economic growth, other than their own.”
Davis said the voters “can be trusted to make an educated and responsible decision about Rankin County’s future.”
“As a resident, I feel that we must look at all sides, not just the rhetoric of a particular group,” he said. “ With this election, we have an opportunity to level the playing field and allow our businesses to compete on an equal footing with those of Madison and Hinds counties. If residents understand this point, then we all win.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.