Blue laws brew debate

OXFORD – There’s been a lot of talk about liquor on Oxford’s downtown square as this Mississippi college town considers Sunday alcohol sales. Some see it as a transgression of the Lord’s Day; others a time to put religious reservations aside.
A growing list of cities and counties in the Bible Belt and beyond have shrugged off alcohol restrictions in hopes of more tax revenue and economic development in lean times. Localities in pursuit of new revenue are re-examining long-standing perceptions about drinking being a sin or vice.
Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson and other city leaders have been discussing the idea of Sunday alcohol sales at restaurants.
Debate about alcohol in Oxford has raged in some form or another at least since the days of William Faulkner, the Mississippi literary great who wrote a letter to the local newspaper in the 1940s in support of legalizing beer.
Nowadays the talk is of recession and improving the bottom line.
“In times of recession, revenue that were previously foregone are now sought,” explained Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland. “If people are leaving your county on Sundays to drink, you’re losing revenue.”
But others like Eric Hankins, pastor at the First Baptist Church, want the city to sink the idea of Sunday sales.
Hankins said he’s urging his congregation to speak out against the proposal because he believes Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, should try to shed its reputation as a party town.
“I definitely believe that a community has a right to say that spiritual things, religious things are important,” Hankins said.
In recent years, the town square has become a weekend gathering spot for Ole Miss students. Officials say it’s not unusual for police to issue dozens of drinking citations over the course of a weekend.
Patterson believes giving partygoers another day to drink won’t help the situation or the town’s image.
But that doesn’t sit well with many seated at the bar.
Inside Proud Larry’s bar and grill – where young patrons sip cocktails as they watch TV – general manager Wade Thames said Sunday sales could lead to bigger crowds and a healthier bottom line.
“It opens us up to getting bands in here and encourages people to get out more,” Thames said. “I don’t think selling alcohol is going to make Oxford any less holy.”
The city’s tax revenue has mostly been steady in recent years. But Patterson said restaurant and bar owners believe Sunday sales would be good for business.

More states going wet
All told, 36 states now allow Sunday alcohol sales.
Take the case of Texas: some 353 out of 460 counties and cities have voted to go from dry to wet since 2004, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association known as DISCUS.
The trade group launched a campaign in 2002 to push for more states to allow Sunday sales. Over a four-year period, 12 states gave approval for package stores to open on Sundays. Those states experienced a 5 to 7 percent increase in tax revenue each year, according to DISCUS’ research.
Currently, 34 of Mississippi’s 82 counties are dry for hard liquor. Over the past two years, seven cities have received state approval to extend liquor sales to Sunday. Two cities and one county have voted to go from dry to wet in regard to beer, said Kathy Waterbury, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.
Votes on alcohol have passed in several communities.
Jackie Adams, 72, of Greer, S.C., said she voted for the alcohol sales initiative last Tuesday that was on the ballot there. “To go out and have a glass of wine with your Sunday evening meal, that doesn’t bother me at all,” she said.
Fifty-eight percent of the 4,490 votes cast were in favor of allowing bars and restaurants to serve alcohol on Sundays.
In September, the City Council in Naperville, Ill., voted to extend Sunday hours for alcohol sales. Mayor A. George Pradel, also the city’s liquor commissioner, said research showed residents were going outside the city to buy booze.

Building support
Ben Jenkins, spokesman for DISCUS, said his organization hopes to build on the trend with support for legislation that overhauls “archaic” blue laws.
“I think the No. 1 thing is economic development. If you’re talking about on-premise Sunday sales, you’re never going to get a national chain restaurant or quality hotels without them,” Jenkins said.
Cullman County, Ala.,Mayor Max Townson said going wet could help a multimillion development lure restaurants there. The referendum last week passed with 52 percent voting for it.
A developer there is planning an outdoor shopping development with restaurants and major retailers, Townson said, adding that project alone could create hundreds of jobs in a city with a population of about 15,000.
In Oxford the mayor, Patterson, says his opposition to Sunday alcohol sales isn’t out of fear of fire and brimstone.
“The majority of the people who live here don’t want it to be another Beale Street or Bourbon Street,” Patterson said, referring to tourist destinations in Memphis and New Orleans, respectively. “It’s about the direction your town is heading.”

SHELIA BYRD / The Associated Press