By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ALBANY – The legalization of beer and light wine in New Albany a year ago was feared by its opponents as a slippery slope to high crime and was touted by its supporters as a fount of new dining opportunities and tax revenues.
Overall, changes both positive and negative have been modest.
Given the tens of thousands of cases of beer sold since it became legal in New Albany on April 15, 2010, new sales tax revenue is inevitable but difficult to quantify, Mayor Tim Kent said.
“It’s hard to track,” he said. “Tax receipts are always up and down.”
Unlike liquor, which is sold in “wet” jurisdictions only through state-supplied package liquor stores, beer and light wine are not separately categorized in sales tax revenues.
Mississippi returns to municipalities a portion of the sales tax collected within their boundaries, with each month’s payments coming several weeks later.
Taxes returned to New Albany in March from January sales were lower than any in two years, Kent said.
“We think that was probably because of those snows and the cold – that people just didn’t get out and shop,” he said.
For individual businesses, the changes have sometimes been profound. Dave McNeal, owner of Dave’s One Stop, said selling beer has transformed his business.
“We sell more of everything now – gas, snacks, cigarettes,” he said. “Hot food sales have doubled. Two thousand and ten is the best year we’ve ever had.”
McNeal said his modest store on the west end of the city attracts not only New Albany residents but folks from outside the city and other counties. He’s sold some 31,000 cases in the year since legalization, prompting him to add a walk-in cooler – “a beer cave,” he calls it.
“I’m the No. 2 store for Budweiser in this part of Mississippi,” McNeal said.
Ali Sharif, manager of Regal Truck Stop on Highway 30 West, said food sales are up only moderately, but cigarette sales have doubled since beer and light wine took over most of the store’s cooler space.
“It’s been a big thing for our business,” he said. “We have no regrets.”
One of the few restaurants serving beer is Ellen Dee’s Bar and Grill. Deborah Hutchison said she and Larry Boyd saw a need for a restaurant with a certain atmosphere.
“Beer had been legalized, and yet there was no place to have a beer, watch a ball game and hear the music we like,” Hutchison said. Ellen Dee’s, which opened in February, does live music on Fridays, karaoke on Saturdays and other times has 15 TV screens available for whatever customers want to watch, all while serving up a mostly from-scratch menu.
“It’s the kind of place we wanted to go,” Hutchison said.
Jason Crump of Mitchell Beverage in Tupelo said he has been stunned by just how good a market New Albany, which now boasts five of the company’s top 10 clients, has proven. On a recent day, he said, he sold a total of 220 cases at five stops in Tupelo.
“Then I walked into my first store in New Albany and sold them 220 cases, and the second was 406 cases,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy over here.”
Arrests down, up
According to Union County Jail records, arrests for illegal possession/open container by all law enforcement agencies in the county dropped 30 percent in the first year after legalization compared to the year before. Public drunkenness arrests went down almost 20 percent.
Arrests for driving under the influence were mixed: Those by the Union County Sheriff Department remained level, while Mississippi Highway Patrol DUI arrests in Union County dropped 15 percent. Within the New Albany Police Department, however, DUI arrests rose 52 percent.
“We have a full-time DUI officer now, and I attribute most of that difference to his work,” said Police Chief David Grisham. “He dedicates all his time to DUI.”
Grisham contends that the level of impaired driving has not changed significantly.
“I can’t say there are any more DUIs because of the legalization of beer,” he said. “Folks have always drunk. I don’t think there’s anybody drinking now that it’s legal that wasn’t drinking before.”
Terry Petrowski is one whose habits support Grisham’s theory. Even though beer remains illegal in rural Union County, where he lives, Petrowski is pleased to buy Bud Light at Regal Truck Stop.
“I used to go to some little store in Potts Camp,” he said. “It’s probably 15 or 20 miles over there, and I’m over here (in New Albany) all the time anyway.”
Tula McAnally, co-owner of Vic’s convenience store just outside Sherman, also added to the strength of Grisham’s theory that most area drinkers were already buying alcohol elsewhere. Beer sales at Vic’s dropped by half when New Albany stores began selling, McAnally said, although “It’s picked back up since then.”
Quiet on the home front
New Albany resident Jeanie Graham said she’s been gratified with the transition. Seriously injured by a drunk driver when she was a teenager, Graham has campaigned against impaired driving but supported legalization. She had predicted that making beer available locally would mean fewer people driving to other counties for alcohol.
“They’re already tired when they get off work. If they’re drinking on the way back, it’s even more important to keep them off the road,” she said.
Even those who were some of the most vocal opponents to legalization in advance of last year’s election are staying quiet in public about the issue. Pastor Rickey Blythe of First Baptist Church declined to comment when asked for his assessment.
Such silence raises speculation about two possible explanations: Maybe opponents are resigned to New Albany’s status as a wet town. Perhaps, though, having defeated a countywide referendum to legalize liquor in 2008, they’re keeping their powder dry for a referendum rematch on beer in 2015.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.