Tupelo eyes Starkville’s liquor debate

TUPELO – If Starkville allows Sunday alcohol sales, as currently proposed, Tupelo’s tourism business could suffer unless the city quickly follows suit.
Tourism, concert and restaurant officials here are closely watching Starkville’s debate over an ordinance to allow Sunday alcohol sales.
The first of two public hearings on the issue took place last week at Starkville City Hall. A second hearing is scheduled during the Board of Aldermen’s next meeting Aug. 18.
If the board approves it, businesses there could sell alcohol from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. Currently, the city is dry that day, as are most in the region.
“It could take some business from Tupelo,” said Jim Beane, president of the Tupelo Restaurant Association, which launched a failed effort for Sunday beer sales here several years ago. “I’ve heard we have lost concerts and conventions starting on Sunday because they want to be able to have an open cash bar. In the long run, if you police it right, I think it could be a strong asset for the city.”
Tupelo vies with Starkville and other cities in the region and across the state for tourism business. If one of those cities suddenly allowed Sunday alcohol sales, it would have an asset that Tupelo currently lacks.
“We’re in competition every day with meetings and conventions,” said Linda Butler Johnson, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’d like to have the same level playing field.”
Depending on whom you talk to, Tupelo’s conference and convention business is either stagnant or declining. Profits at the BancorpSouth Conference Center have dropped so low that its management group couldn’t afford to make lease payments to the city.
The Tupelo Redevelopment Agency gave the group, Master Hospitality, a yearlong reprieve to catch up.
Shari Long Neely, sales director for the conference center, didn’t say whether she supported a similar ordinance in Tupelo. Her only comment was that “I certainly don’t think it will negatively impact our ability to bring conferences into the city.”
It wouldn’t hurt the concert business either.
Tupelo’s largest venue, the BancorpSouth Arena, has lost shows in the past to Starkville’s Humphrey Coliseum. It could lose even more if alcohol is an issue, said arena’s board chairman Scott Reed.
“We have had to turn down concerts because the beer sales portion makes or breaks the profit-loss figures of when we book an act,” Reed said. “A couple weeks ago we had to turn down a concert because the only date was Sunday, and when we crunched the numbers and took beers sales out, we couldn’t make it.”

Loss of revenues
The loss of a concert doesn’t just strip revenues from the arena but robs area restaurants and hotels of the economic impact. Reed estimated it at $100,000 to $150,000 depending on the show.
“From our point of view,” Reed said, “it would certainly open the possibility of doing more profitable business for the city if we had alcohol sales on Sunday.”
The Starkville Visitors and Convention Council apparently thinks so, too; it agreed Wednesday to write a letter supporting the current effort.
Johnson said Tupelo’s CVB probably wouldn’t lead a local initiative to get Sunday liquor sales here, but likely would support it because of the strong economic impact it’d have.
“Anything that would support tourism and be good for tourism,” she said, “we’d be for that.”
Tupelo records show the City Council’s latest consideration of Sunday beer and light wine sales was in 2002. The council voted it down.
Another effort two years later, launched by Tupelo restaurant owners, was withdrawn just days before the council was set to vote. Beane said at the time they didn’t have the votes they’d need to pass it.
The current council, which took office last month, has yet to debate Sunday beer or alcohol sales. But most of the seven members either support it or are at least open to the possibility. Two flatly oppose it.
Mike Bryan, of Ward 6, and Willie Jennings, of Ward 7, said people have six days each week to buy alcohol; a seventh is unnecessary.
“Sunday I just thought should be set aside not to have alcohol,” Jennings said. “I think we can survive that one day.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com. Also read her blog, The Government Grind, at NEMS360.com.

Tupelo’s take
Only two of the seven City Council members are flatly opposed to Sunday alcohol sales. The others are open to the idea. Here’s how the council and mayor responded:
Mayor Jack Reed – It’s a City Council decision. I will support the council.
Ward 1 Markel Whittington – I am open to listen and do what we can to improve the economy.
Ward 2 Fred Pitts – Yes, PM sales, wine & beer, restaurants only.
Ward 3 Jim Newell – Undecided. I would like to know what the citizens of Ward 3 support.
Ward 4 Nettie Davis – Yes, after church. It’s an economic issue. Many served at restaurants and motels/hotels.
Ward 5 Jonny Davis – Undecided.
Ward 6 Mike Bryan – No.
Ward 7 Willie Jennings – No. Restaurants should be profitable without Sunday alcohol sales.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio