Ag Center alcohol policy often ignored

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Beer and liquor flow so freely at the Lee County Agri-Center’s Magnolia Building that at least one regular event-goer doubted the facility even had a no-alcohol policy.
“Is it a new rule?” said Elquin Gonzalas during an interview with the Daily Journal. “I have been there many times. There was beer there all the time.”
It’s not a new rule. It has been in place since the county-owned building opened nearly two decades ago, yet alcohol-fueled parties seem to be the norm.
Last Saturday, Lee County Sheriff’s deputies interrupted a party at the Magnolia Building where some 400 people, including minors, had access to beer and liquor. They were drinking well past midnight with hired security officers looking the other way.
One intoxicated 16-year-old crashed his car into the Agri-Center’s gate. He was arrested, as well as the party’s organizer, 25-year-old Noe Lopez of Houston.
In his rental agreement with the county, a copy of which the Daily Journal obtained, Lopez classified the event as a 15th birthday party. Called Quinceaampñeras, 15th birthday parties are the Hispanic equivalent of the Sweet 16.
It’s Lopez’s second such Quinceaampñera at the Magnolia Building this year. His first one was in February.
Both times he signed a nine-page contract with Lee County that states on page four, “Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on premises for consumption.” Although it’s written in bold and all caps, it’s the only such reference to the policy.
Sheriff Jim Johnson called it a “wink, wink” arrangement where the county’s official stance bans alcohol but quietly allows it under the radar. Johnson said his deputies receive routine complaints about parties at the Magnolia Building and estimates at least two a month involve alcohol.
“There needs to be somebody down there at all times,” Johnson said. “That night there was nobody – no part-time director, no interim director – nobody from the county representing this thing to monitor it or make sure the contract was being followed.”
The facility, which sits adjacent to the Lee County Agri-Center, has hosted 61 events in the past 48 months. Nearly one-third were classified in the contract as Quinceaampñeras and slightly more than one half of the renters had Hispanic names.
Gonzalas said the facility is popular among the Hispanic community and that beer often is served. Everyone has been under the assumption alcohol was allowed, he said, because no one has said otherwise. He also said at least one person in the Hispanic community was told they could serve alcohol as long as they paid extra.
Charlie Williams, an Agri-Center employee whose name appears as the county’s representative on at least one contract, said no amount of money will reverse the alcohol ban. There is, however, an extra fee for renting the facility after midnight.
Williams also said he explains the rules to renters, but he’s not the only one handling contracts. Several people have juggled the responsibility since the Agri-Center’s most recent director resigned in October. County Administrator Sean Thompson, who has served as the facility’s de facto interim director since then, said he believes every one explains the rules but acknowledged he has no way of proving it either way.
Lee County Board of Supervisors President Phil Morgan said it’s not the county’s responsibility to explain the rules. Renters sign a contract which states the policy and bear the responsibility of understanding their commitment.
The county’s only wrongdoing, Morgan said, has been a lack of enforcement. But that apparently will change.
“It’ll be a different situation from now on,” he said. “We’re going to have somebody there to enforce the non-alcoholic beverages policy. We’re going to raise the deposit and put some language that says you forfeit the deposit if there’s alcohol, plus whatever else the law will allow us to do.
“We’re going to put an end to the alcohol.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com