State law does not allow communities under 5,000 population to vote on resort status, but backers of the petition said communities below that threshold have been allowed resort status under local and private bills passed by the Mississippi Legislature and they want that opportunity, too.
Resort status would allow New Houlka to put a tax on restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns and hotels with revenue used to promote tourism and draw people to town. Resort status would also allow businesses in New Houlka to sell beer, wine and mixed drinks as defined by the New Houlka Board of Aldermen.
Houlka has a population of 686.
"This is about bringing business and people back to Houlka," said Tina Pullen, who has petitions at Tina's Fifth Avenue Salon in downtown Houlka. "My business depends on the economic health of this town."
Pullen pointed out the window to a basically empty town square at noon Thursday in Houlka.
"We need more traffic downtown. We need more people willing to open a business here," she added. "I think resort status might help turn things around."
Pullen said six businesses have opened and closed in downtown Houlka over the past two years.
Pullen said petitions can be found at Turner Insurance, Mid South Propane, Old Houlka Food Shop, Gary Washington Oil, Dollar General and Derrick's Auto in Houlka.
Chris Turner, of Turner Insurance, said he supports the referendum for economic reasons, too.
"This is an economic development issue and not just about alcohol," said Turner. "We are asking for special resort status so we can capitalize on tourist who come to Davis Lake and those who will come to town when the Tanglefoot Trail opens next year."
Turner said both Starkville and Oxford have seen nearby communities under 5,000 population apply for resort status and be successful. He said if New Houlka obtains qualified resort status the community would still have to vote to allow the sale of alcohol, beer and wine by the glass.
"People vote with their dollars," said Turner. "People go Tupelo to eat and dine out and they drive Lake Road to Okolona every day to get beer. I think this is an opportunity to keep those dollars in Houlka."
New Houlka Mayor Jimmy Kelly said the city asked local lawmakers for qualified resort status several years ago and no bill ever made it to the floor for a vote.
"We just hope this petition will be an indicator in the amount of interest in this issue," said Kelly. "Resort status would still mean the city determines the ordinances and how these revenue dollars would be spent to promote tourism."
Kelly said New Houlka's sale tax revenues are down and he supports anything that keeps dollars in town.
"I support it, but it is yet to be seen if the entire city board supports resort status," said Kelly. "I will say this, selling alcohol in Houlka will not make anyone take a drink that is not already taking a drink. It will keep them from driving to Okolona, Pontotoc, Tupelo or the bootlegger to get it."
Both Turner and Pullen said they certainly have no intention to sell alcohol at their businesses. Both said they support resort status because it will help Houlka grow.
"We lost our bank because of a decline in foot-traffic, we saw our downtown grill close and we understand another restaurant may soon close its doors," said Turner. "Would resort status have kept any of those doors open? I think it would have helped and that is why I support this. We have to do something. If anyone has a better economic development idea, I will be glad to listen."
Legislation passed this spring allowing municipalities of more than 5,000 to vote to allow the sale of liquor inside the city limits of dry counties. That legislation would allow a vote on the sale of alcohol by the glass if 20-percent of the residents signed a petition asking the issue be put to a vote.
The City of Philadelphia made a similar request for qualified resort status this spring and was denied. Philadelphia also saw similar legislation die in 2011. Nearby casinos operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians serve liquor 24 hours a day.
Resort status has traditionally allowed businesses with significant historical or tourism value in dry areas or in city limits to serve alcohol 24-hours a day. However, state law says city boards can petition to have hours of any area with resort status fall in line with normal alcohol sales times.