By Melanie Addington/Oxford Eagle
OXFORD — After months of off-and-on debate over whether Oxford should allow the sale of alcohol on Sunday, some local leaders are indicating they’re ready to let the community finally decide this long simmering issue.
Oxford Tourism Council President Jim McCauley recently asked members to think over the next month about supporting a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales.
“I would like to see us have a referendum on it,” McCauley said. “I want to hear what the citizens have to say.”
McCauley is not alone in thinking that it is time for a vote on Sunday alcohol sales.
Mayor Pat Patterson, while not in support of Sunday sales, told the members of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation that it’s only fair for the citizens to voice their opinion on the issue and a vote would be the best way for them to do it.
While several bar and restaurant owners, as well as many members of the community, support for Sunday alcohol sales, many key officials have been reluctant to come out in favor of expanding alcohol sales to seven days a week.
Two events seem to have brought renewed attention to the issue.
One was the city giving its support of allowing Sunday sales during Valentine’s Day this past February. The state Alcohol Beverage Control office denied the city’s request, noting that it no longer plans to consider one-day exceptions to alcohol laws.
The other event was when severe weather forced organizers of the Double Decker Arts Festival to move many of the festival’s events from a Saturday to Sunday. Many local restaurants and bar operators say they were not able to take more advantage of what could have been an additional day of big business if the community allowed them to have alcohol sales on Sunday.
With the economic slowdown that has gripped Oxford and all other cities in the U.S. for the past 18 months reducing sales tax collections, more communities are more willing to try new efforts aimed at boosting local business.
“There has always been talk about (Sunday alcohol sales), but I don’t think anyone has been willing to lead the charge because they were fearful of what the implications may be,” City Grocery Restaurant Group owner John Currence said. “It is sort of an inevitability. The implications are too great to not consider from that standpoint.”
Currence said that if Sunday sales did pass, it would not greatly change his business as he believes it’s important to have a day off for his employees.
“I am not planning on changing how I operate even if it does happen,” Currence said. “But the question is, how does it make Oxford a better place? Simple quality of life. This could give people the opportunity if they want to go out after church to have a glass of wine or glass of champagne with brunch. Why deny them that?”
Currence said the 2 percent tax which the city receives back on any alcohol and food sales is part of the life blood of the city and Sunday alcohol sales would improve that.
“There is a greater degree of civility in this discussion then there has been in the past,” Currence said. “I don’t see the folks who would oppose it being completely up in arms about having a discussion about it. The fact that we had the vote on Valentine’s Day and that went without any hubbub at all says everything.”
Because Lafayette County is not a dry county, a petition of 20 percent of the registered voters, or 1,700 people, is not a requirement to hold a vote on having Sunday alcohol sales, according to Alcoholic Beverage Control officials.
If it were a dry county, the petition would be required. The only technical requirement is for the Oxford Board of Aldermen to vote for Sunday sales and then petition the state Tax Commission.
“Generally statewide regulation of the hours of sale for hard liquor end at midnight and no Sunday sales,” said Mark Hicks, director of law enforcement for ABC. “If the municipality would like to have Sunday sales, they have to petition the state Tax Commission and the commission would render a decision.”
Oxford attorney Dee Hobbs Jr. said that since Oxford held an election in the 1960s to become “wet,” a new referendum cannot be held but that there are two separate issues — beer sales and alcohol sales.
“The only option citizens have is to ask the board of aldermen to pass a resolution for an ordinance that allows Sunday beer sales. The state law for beer is that it can be sold seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight. The cities or counties have authority to operate within those hours.
“For alcoholic beverages, which is more than 5 percent alcohol, the procedure is a bit different but still originates from the board of aldermen. They must pass a resolution to the State Tax Commission wanting the liquor sales,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs said an informal vote for citizens is to call their alderman asking to support Sunday alcohol sales but that a public vote is not needed.
Hicks said while the mayor and Board of Aldermen could hold a vote of some sort to see if the public wants Sunday alcohol sales, ultimately the city must be the entity that decides and petitions the state.
In recent months, several cities throughout the state have added or expanded alcohol sales, including Water Valley, New Albany and Tupelo.