In what is likely to be a heated and closely watched discussion, the Tupelo City Council tonight will vote on whether to allow the sale of beer and light wine on Sundays.
But supporters are pressing their case as a matter of economic development.
Clyde Whitaker, a former mayor and now a partner in Contemporary Restaurants, a company that owns restaurants in Tupelo, Starkville, Oxford, Memphis and Jackson, said an affirmative vote will help the city attract more conventions, restaurants and other businesses.
In Tupelo, the company runs Old Venice Pizza and is opening Varsity Grille later this month.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an economic issue to keep business in our community,” he said. “We believe a lot of people will come to watch ballgames at restaurants on Sunday and there will be an increase in sales.”
Whitaker said the extra sales will help restaurants during a time when many are struggling.
“It’s hard for a restaurant to be successful without having the alcohol sales to help with the expenses,” Whitaker said. “Certainly, there are those restaurants that don’t sell alcohol and do fine without it. But for our business model and what we’re trying to do, alcohol sales is part of what we do.”
Lifting the ban also could open doors elsewhere, he said.
Whitaker is a real estate developer and said some national chain restaurants and hotels have shied away from Tupelo because of the ban on Sunday alcohol sales.
“If the city is going to grow and attract some of the bigger retailers and restaurants and hotels, this is a big step,” he said, referring to tonight’s vote.
Grocery and convenience stores also stand to benefit if Sunday alcohol sales are allowed.
John Robbins, who co-owns Verona-based Robbins Oil with his brother, Ben, said he hopes the City Council votes to allow Sunday sales of beer and light wine.
“The whole thing is not just about beer,” Robbins said.
When people go into his two convenience stores in Tupelo, including Papa V’s in Fairpark, they buy several items they need. He expects that if they bought beer on Sunday, they also would buy chips and other snack items.
“Right now they’re traveling to other places to buy their beer if they choose to buy on Sunday,” Robbins said. “The city of Tupelo might as well reap the rewards of it and collect the sales tax.”
Okolona, for example, allows Sunday beer sales, as do Corinth and West Point.
Opponents say that permitting Sunday alcohol sales will open the community to more problems, and they have been clear in letting City Council members know how they feel.
Tupelo Christians for Family Values placed a full-page ad in the Daily Journal on Sunday, asking “Should alcohol be sold on Sundays in Tupelo?” and urging members to contact council members “to let them know there is no price on family values.”
The Rev. Forrest Sheffield, senior pastor at Harrisburg Baptist Church, is chairman of the group. He told the Daily Journal that “there will come a time when someone gets hurt from buying beer on Sunday.”
Despite the strong feelings both for and against the proposal, not everyone is choosing sides.
“I really don’t have a preference,” said Todd’s Big Star Manager Clay Knight. “I think it will mean more for the local restaurants. We don’t have a big beer section in our store and it’s really not a big part of our business. It’s not going to affect us that much from what I see. If I did drink, I’d buy plenty enough on Saturday.”
Robbins thinks that the people who would buy beer on Sunday aren’t deterred by the current ban.
“If they want it, they are going to buy it on Saturday or go to Okolona,” Robbins said. “Would you rather someone drive 20 or 30 miles and possibly drink one or two on the way back or buy it in the neighborhood?”
He said the success of his business isn’t riding on Sunday beer sales, but they would help.
“There’s no doubt that it would increase my business,” Robbins said. “We’ll survive either way, but it would definitely let us see an increase.”
Michael Blankenship, the executive vice president of Contemporary Restaurants, said Old Venice in Tupelo loses about 6 percent of its business volume on Sundays because of its inability to sell beer and light wine.
Blankenship said sales at Old Venice locations in Memphis and Jackson tend to track about 50 percent higher on Sundays compared to the Tupelo location. Sunday alcohol sales are allowed in those two cities.
“You’re looking at missed sales, which help with tax revenue and which help pay people’s salaries,” he said. “In hard times like these, it’s important to capture as many sales as you can.”
And clearly with the case of Varsity Grille, which will feature 16 large-screen TVs, having the ability to sell alcohol seven days a week will be an big draw.
“Football season just started and friends like to gather and watch the games, maybe have an adult beverage,” Blankenship said. “We’re not pushing it on anyone, but at least people should have an opportunity to buy if they want to.”
Pat Campeau, a partner in the Fairpark Grill, said he’ll be happy with whatever decision the City Council makes. He said he’s not advocating for one position or the other.
Sunday business at the Grill revolves around brunch and dinner. Campeau said the restaurant doesn’t have a big football crowd. He surmised that customers enjoy the sport and their beverages in their homes and hotel rooms.
Whitaker said he has no issue with those opposed to lifting the ban and respects their opinion.
“I don’t want anyone to get the impression we’re calling people or putting up signs or anything like that to push for it,” he said. “Whether it’s voted up or down, it’s not going to make or break us. But for some restaurants who are struggling, every little bit helps. And it could be the difference in six months whether they’re running or failing.”
Click here for Patsy R. Brumfield's blog. Watch for live updates tonight from the council meeting. NEMS Daily Journal Editorial: Sunday beer and light wine sales ordinance is a restrained approach
The City Council meeting begins at 6 p.m. on the second floor of City Hall.