Arkansas’ arcane liquor laws stir opportunity and opposition

Editor’s note: The following story was written for TBQ magazine, a quarterly publication produced by Little Rock-based journalist Roby Brock. Link here for more information about the magazine and its newest issue.

story by Michael Tilley

Arkansas’ liquor laws are a convoluted concoction of rules creating a checkerboard of 43 dry counties and 32 wet counties. Some of the dry counties are as dry as the bottom of the Arkansas River. Sebastian County, for example, is dry unless you consider that Fort Smith — home to roughly 75% of the county population — is wet.

Or the “dry” Benton County that is home to 123 private club permits. The other four members of the top five most private clubbed dry counties (Faulkner, Craighead, Saline and Pope) have, combined, only 82 private club permits. The wet counties of Pulaski and Washington have 123 private club licenses combined. You can’t pop a champagne cork in Benton County without hitting a private club.

We have rules as to when and how alcohol can be sold from either a convenience store, grocery story or a bonafide liquor store; rules differentiating between sales of wine fermented in Arkansas and wine fermented outside the state. There are rules that say your local Chili’s or Applebee’s is simply a restaurant that can serve beer if built in a wet county, but is a special private club with a (wink, wink) membership policy to go along with food sales if it operates in a dry county.

There are rules on specific times hooch can be sold on the weekends because we’re all mindful of and in agreement with the seminal Harvard study proving that a beer sold at 9:59 a.m. on a Sunday morning leads to immediate and terrific societal destruction, whereas the same beer sold 61 seconds later is nothing more than a standard commercial exchange between consenting adults that results in a positive economic impact for the local economy and tax proceeds for state and local governments.

Not familiar with the Harvard study? Of course you’re not, because no such study exists. Which is something to keep in mind when considering dang near all Arkansas liquor laws and wondering if there is some pragmatic reason for their formulation — No Such Study Exists.

And no definitive study likely will ever exist. The popular social satirist P.J. O’Rourke, commenting on U.S. drug policy, once noted: “Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

‘DISJOINTED’
If Christ returned today to pull his famous wedding trick in Craighead County, one of his disciples might encourage the Lord to also pull a private club liquor license out of the backside of his golden toga or there’ll be hell to pay. But Christ would know that, because if anyone fully understands the enigmatic labyrinth of Arkansas’ liquor laws it could only be an all-knowing member of the Holy Trinity.

Or Michael Langley.

Langley is director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division. It was a simple questioned posed to him in the interview for this story: “Explain why we shouldn’t believe Arkansas’ liquor laws are nothing more than a tangled web of patchwork rules based more on the fluctuating social mores of when they were founded and amended, rather than any reasoned science, physiology or rational understanding of how humans interact with and around political boundaries and the free market system?”

Langley laughed. Paused. Laughed again, and then said something about offering a 10 cent answer to a $1 question.

“I think disjointed is probably the better term for our liquor laws,” Langley responded, adding that the laws “are all over the place.”

THE STATUS QUO
To be fair, Langley’s job is not to defend the state’s liquor laws. His primary job is to ensure that those for and against selling spirits obey the spirit and letter of the law. In admitting without being asked that the body of law is not necessarily intended to be judged as pragmatic, Langley provided honest and sober context. Furthermore, he believes volatile “political atmospheres” through the decades played a big role in changes to the law, especially in a state where religion guided public policy as to what was right and wrong for liquor use.

Langley is also quick to admit that Arkansas' liquor law “has a clear bias” to keep counties dry, citing the rule that to change a counties wet/dry status requires signatures from 38% of the number of people who voted in the county’s recent general election. With churches and adjacent county liquor store owners eager to protect their borders and booze sales, respectively, it’s nigh impossible to hit the 38% mark.

“This is my opinion, but that’s on there to protect the status quo; to protect dry counties and to protect county-line liquor stores,” Langley explained.

Although Marion County voted itself dry in 2006, similar efforts failed in Baxter, Boone, Clark and Sharp counties. Langley said wet proponents in those counties will try again. He said the “talk in coffee shops” in Clark County — home to Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University — is that the next vote to go wet might pass.

PICKETT’S CHARGE
But a county doesn’t have to vote itself wet to be wet. There is the Betty Pickett law.

Act 1813 of the 2003 regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly was sponsored by Rep. Betty Pickett, D-Conway, and expanded the definition of a private club so a locally owned or nationally-franchised restaurant could sell beer, wine and mixed drinks in a dry county.

Greg Nabholz will go so far as to say the Betty Pickett law could have been one of the many triggers that convinced Hewlett-Packard to locate a 1,200-employee customer and technical service center in Conway. The June 2008 announcement that Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP would build a $43 million facility in Conway was the reward for a more than 7-year effort by Conway business and political leaders to expand the city’s “cool factor,” Nabholz said.

That effort began in 2001 with a failed effort to push legislation allowing cities to vote for a liquor-by-the-drink law. Nabholz, then the president of Citizens for a Progressive Arkansas, said officials in Conway, Jonesboro and other cities believed flexible alcohol  rules would better help communities in the global economic development game.

Liquor store owners opposed the 2001 effort because it might allow cities then to push to open up for liquor stores, and the package stores “might lose the government protection of their market areas,” Nabholz noted with a hint of bitterness. They then encountered opposition from restaurants and hotels in adjacent wet counties.

After the Pickett law, downtown Conway began to grow with new restaurants and retail stores. Whether that is a coincidence or a result of the law remains a debate between teetotalers and those who like to swirl a merlot with their moist mignon.

THE CONWAY STORY
There is no doubting the growth in mixed drink sales in Faulkner County. According to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, the mixed drink tax collected in Faulkner County (10% statewide tax rate) rose from $46,001 in 2002 to $299,719 in 2008. That’s a 551.5% increase in the six-year period for those keeping score at home. Tax collections statewide from the mixed drink tax were $7.26 million in 2008, up 39.5% from 2002 collections.

Downtown improvements between 2003 and early 2008 “set the stage,” Nabholz explained, so that when HP took a tour of Conway, the vibrant downtown was a plus.

“The bottom line is, if you don’t have that cool downtown, you’re out of the game,” Nabholz said. “Having the quality of life amenities, including alcohol and entertainment options in a walkable, livable urban core ... those are the things that are going to help the communities in Arkansas be able to compete.”

Langley, a smart attorney, refused to be drawn into the debate.

“If your argument is that we need more amenities for economic development, then the Betty Pickett law is the way to go,” Langley said. “The restaurants and things contributed to the quality of life issues that HP considered. ... We can’t completely ignore that effect ... because some people have never heard of a dry county until they come to Arkansas.”

Langley added that Faulkner County is “a good compromise between those who seek alcohol sales and those who want to maintain a dry county.”

BOB FIGHTS BACK
The other view of the Betty Pickett law is that it is “legal jargon” and “lies from hell” destined to deliver “tremendous negative consequences” to the citizens of Arkansas. That’s the view of Bob Hester, a Craighead County resident who Langley said is one of the more active voices against the expansion of Arkansas liquor laws.

Hester is a self-proclaimed “Christian activist” and has spent more than 20 years fighting the infiltration of pornography and liquor into any corner of the state. They were happy to live with the country clubs and Elk clubs having alcohol, but when the Betty Pickett law was passed, “that was too much,” Hester said.

If you ever have about an hour to kill, ask Hester, who claims to have never sipped the slightest amount of booze, the following three questions.

• What’s your beef with alcohol, anyway?
• Is it really so wrong for an adult to want to have a glass of wine or a Maker’s Mark and water with a steak?
• What about liberalized alcohol laws being good for economic development?

To the first question, Hester noted: “First of all, alcohol is a drug. It’s the number one gateway drug to other drugs and it has tremendous negative consequences. It should be obvious to everyone how devastating alcohol is.”

Opposing alcohol is not just a moral issue, “it’s a practical, safety issue,” Hester advises. “I think they (people who insist on the need to have a drink with a meal) are not being considerate of their neighbor or children for having that and getting in their car and driving. They are very selfish folks, and they need to study up on alcohol,” Hester further advised.

And Hester refuses to acknowledge that any adult is capable of having just one or two drinks, or having a designated driver or seeking a cab.

“If we were talking about having just one beer or one glass of wine with a meal, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. ... But you know they don’t just stop with a few (drinks). It’s like those radio ads say, ‘Buzzed driving is drunk driving.’”

THE DELTA CHALLENGE
As to the economic development issue ...
“That’s the biggest lie that ever came out of hell,” Hester said with an evangelical flourish. For those who claim liquor sales help recruit businesses, Hester notes that a vast majority of wet counties are in the Arkansas Delta.

“So if that’s the case, why aren’t counties in the Delta economic powerhouses?” Hester rhetorically quizzed.

Not waiting for an answer, Hester continued: “Nobody has ever given us one example of a person that said they would not come to a county because there is not enough alcohol. I think they would be very foolish to say that because a lot of alcohol is not a good thing when it comes to worker safety and productivity.”

Hester said several groups, including Citizens for Responsive Government, are gearing up to push back against efforts to expand Arkansas liquor sales. A legislative challenge to the Betty Pickett law and fighting permits that go before the ABC board are two of the “several routes” in the effort, Hester predicted. Would the group work on a statewide referendum to nix the Betty Pickett law?

“A referendum has been mentioned, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. It’s one of those options, I’d say,” Hester said.

There is also the possibility of a legal challenge to the Betty Pickett law. Hester, citing language from the private club law and the 2003 revision by Pickett, made an interesting point in questioning how a for-profit restaurant can claim to be a non-profit enterprise in which the proceeds from liquor sales are to be returned to the operation or the members.

“Do you really think they (nationally franchised restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays) are operating like that, like a non-profit?” Hester said.

Hester and allies might win a legal battle, but numbers from police enforcement fail to prove their claims of an uptick in alcohol-related problems in counties recently approving some form of expanded liquor sales.

Faulkner County had 25 auto fatalities in 2003, with nine of those being alcohol/drug related. In 2007, the county posted 13 fatalities, with just six related to alcohol/drug use. In all of Arkansas, the percent of auto crashes related to alcohol/drug use was 6% in 2000, 6% in 2003 and 5% in 2007. More telling is the reversal in dry county/wet county fatalities. In 2003, 41% of fatalities in dry counties and 43% of fatalities in wet counties were alcohol/drug related. In 2007, 44% of fatalities in dry counties and 41% of fatalities in wet counties were alcohol/drug related.

“All the problems that the people who were against this effort said would happen, has never materialized,” Nabholz said.

Maybe so, but if even a small percentage of the passion of the thousands of Bob Hesters in Arkansas is converted to action, it’s likely that the people who were against the effort will soon materialize into a real problem.

MINISTER’S SON
Richard Hodo has seen firsthand this passionate opposition. Hodo, the son of an evangelical minister, was the first restaurant owner in conservative Crawford County to seek and gain a liquor license for a restaurant located in historic downtown Van Buren.

It was Aug. 15, 2007, when Hodo was granted the license by the ABC board, but not before a flurry of personal attacks and hardcore opposition from the First Baptist Church in Van Buren. Church leaders even cajoled prominent Van Buren business leaders into opposing Hodo’s license request.

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Hodo doesn’t drink. Alcohol, he admitted, is not his thing. His thing, however, is bringing life back to a downtown he has promoted relentlessly for more than 30 years.

“If anybody knew me, they’d know that I don’t need the money. But I stood out there on Main Street and I could see that the street was dying. So I thought, ‘It’s a shame we don’t have something that will make this a focal point for people to come to,’” Hodo said.

Hodo hired well-known economist Jeff Collins to issue a report on what could help the downtown thrive. Not unlike what Nabholz discovered, having access to alcohol sales was necessary to reinvigorating a “cool” downtown, noted the Collins report.

Hodo knew his decision to push for liquor sales would be controversial. He approached his Assembly of God pastor a few days before the ABC board meeting.

“I told him, reminded him, I guess, that I was raised in the church. My Dad was a minister. But I wanted him (pastor) to know that I did what I felt I should do to help the economy,” Hodo explained.

Hodo was told what Hester thought about the economic argument, and how alcohol is, according to religion, an evil.

There was a pause before Hodo cleared his voice and lowered the volume of his response to a respectful reverence: “My dad, I can still hear him talking from the pulpit, would preach that it’s not what goes in your mouth that defiles you, it’s what comes out. He believed and I believe that it’s not the substance, but it’s the lusting after the substance that is the sin.”

The business — “Sisters” restaurant in downtown Van Buren — is doing well since it began selling alcohol on Aug. 25, 2007. The Aug. 17 date of the license approval was also the same day many years ago that Hodo lost his father. The Sunday champagne brunch draws a crowd, and many of those are Baptists, Hodo noted.

So what would his evangelical minister father think of his son owning a successful restaurant that also sold alcohol?

“He would be happy that business is like it is,” Hodo said. “I think we’d both think that people ought to have the right to make that decision, and that we don’t have the right, because of what we might hear (in a church), that we don’t have the right to take that right away from people.”

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Quote worth repeating

“The bottom line is, if you don’t have that cool downtown, you’re out of the game” - Greg Nabholz

It's all how you define cool

Live. Work. Play. that's what Fort Smith is pushing for its historic district downtown. To watch the "go downtown" video, play = drink yourself silly and buy a watch. A "cool" downtown is a pristine and relevant downtown, faithfully restored and vitally open for business, whether it is retail, commerce, government, dining or enjoying an alcoholic beverage. The current path is heading for a difficult climax. Our police will eventually have to crackdown on the level of shytfaced drinking that is going on. That happened once before when 3-for-1 happy hours ruled our fun. Rooster Cogburns Tomfoolery and the Station were packed to the gills. It will take a tragedy and a cry will go out to law enforcement to crackdown on the downtown druck driving and we'll be back to a dead downtown....unless: Play means a diverse offering, alcohol-driven, non-alcohol fun and everything in between. Play means reinforcing what responsible drinking is and the awareness that fun is not predicated on getting hammered. Play means having a transit system that can get you there and back. Play means rewarding the designated driver. We can't define "cool" has reckless drinking. A 24/7 downtown is a marvelous idea. Making it a point not to drive in or near it after 11 fearing DWI drivers is not my idea of cool. I'd rather have a "smart" downtown than a cool one.
Live. Work. Play. that's what Fort Smith is pushing for its historic district downtown. To watch the "go downtown" video, play = drink yourself silly and buy a watch. A "cool" downtown is a pristine and relevant downtown, faithfully restored and vitally open for business, whether it is retail, commerce, government, dining or enjoying an alcoholic beverage. The current path is heading for a difficult climax. Our police will eventually have to crackdown on the level of shytfaced drinking that is going on. That happened once before when 3-for-1 happy hours ruled our fun. Rooster Cogburns Tomfoolery and the Station were packed to the gills. It will ...>> Read the entire comment.

Convivial is right

The problem is that our demographics are Baptist and redneck. Neither one satisfy the need for the young urban professional that we need to attract. We have a catch 22. We need live music and a vibrant night life for "Garrison". (I like this term much better than the lame generic "Downtown".) Until we have more of these professionals we will continue to cater to the redneck, longneck, cloud of cigarette smoke, type folks who are ready to come to blows over whatever Daisy Duke they have both taken a hankerin' to. The coming piano bar along with 21 West End will not attract the Duke boys. Maybe we can move them along with the homeless to a less prominent location in town, maybe out on Midland at The Catus Club and the Branding Iron. Let's make "Garrison" cool.
The problem is that our demographics are Baptist and redneck. Neither one satisfy the need for the young urban professional that we need to attract. We have a catch 22. We need live music and a vibrant night life for "Garrison". (I like this term much better than the lame generic "Downtown".) Until we have more of these professionals we will continue to cater to the redneck, longneck, cloud of cigarette smoke, type folks who are ready to come to blows over whatever Daisy Duke they have both taken a hankerin' to. The coming piano bar along with 21 West End will not attract the Duke boys. Maybe we can move them along with the homeless to a less prominent ...>> Read the entire comment.

Move it out, Rawhide, Hee Haw!! Too many ifs.....

Maybe if we move out the aromas of cow paddies,chicken poop runoff,animal feed processing, etc, then the good ole boys will follow......There are just too many farm and ranch cultural leftovers to overcome to gentrify this town.Some people like it just the way it is. That is not necessarily bad. As long as the Baptists and Rednecks pay taxes,create business and spend money here then what is the difference. Maybe we should all stop trying to make Fort Smith something that it is not meant to be. A good start would be to put the Electric Cowboy down by the Riverfront then go from there.

Peacefully Coexist

It is reassuring to learn that tourists, tax paying, law abiding citizens, and urban hikers can peacefully coexist with vagrants, drug dealers, released convicts, copper wire strippers, perverts and prostitutes along Fort Smith's riverfront. Yes siree bob! Heck, I think I grab my running shoes and head down to Clayton Expressway.

When's the last time you were in Garrison bar?

Rib Room is certainly not a "redneck" bar. Neither is Papa's, Old Town, Landry's, 21 West End or Kinkead's. Maybe Hanging Judge Saloon and Hero's are (haven't been to either so I don't know), but Garrison is not lined with "redneck" bars. Unless, of course, your definition of "redneck" means "people who aren't wearing khakis and Polo shirts." I concede the "cloud of cigarette smoke" point. If only Fort Smith would sack up and pass an anti-smoking ordinance then I wouldn't need to shower to remove the ashtray smell after grabbing a drink on the Avenue.

Bob Hester is wrong

When I bought a home I could have stayed in Van Buren and more cheaply with an FHA loan that I could not get in the oh-so-Urban Fort Smith. I chose to live in Fort Smith and one of the deciding factors is it always irritaed me that I would have to leave my friends and work (at the time) to go across the river to have a beer with my dinner. I have not consumed beer to impairment in 10 years and rarely before that. People like Hester see the worst in others and seek to control them. I love life and freedom and will offer a beer with a meal to anyone with out fear. I am also wearing my seatbelt now and drive prepared for that guy that had more than he should have. I trust others to do the right thing but am ready for those who don't. Wise up Hester. Your not anyones Momma.
When I bought a home I could have stayed in Van Buren and more cheaply with an FHA loan that I could not get in the oh-so-Urban Fort Smith. I chose to live in Fort Smith and one of the deciding factors is it always irritaed me that I would have to leave my friends and work (at the time) to go across the river to have a beer with my dinner. I have not consumed beer to impairment in 10 years and rarely before that. People like Hester see the worst in others and seek to control them. I love life and freedom and will offer a beer with a meal to anyone with out fear. I am also wearing my seatbelt now and drive prepared for that guy that had more than he should have. ...>> Read the entire comment.

Gateway Drugs

Don't get me wrong I appreciate some of the issues Bob Hester attacks but... Alcohol as a Gateway Drug. Give me a break! I bet 100% of all Heroin addicts started by abusing other "Gateway Drugs" as well. Have you ever felt the intoxicating affect of Freedom? I am high on it right now. I would like more of it everyday. Guess I am an addict. It is insidious how it gets into the system. First it's freedom from diapers and it snowballs from there. Next it broke up my home when I left my parent's to live on the streets or down the street. God knows I have tried to quit. I moved back home once but it did not last. I just had to have more of that sweet freedom. I am sure there is a job in Washington for Nanny-Staters like Bob. It's duplicitous to condemn Government for letting Illegals run around but then use Government to keep me from having a beer.
Don't get me wrong I appreciate some of the issues Bob Hester attacks but... Alcohol as a Gateway Drug. Give me a break! I bet 100% of all Heroin addicts started by abusing other "Gateway Drugs" as well. Have you ever felt the intoxicating affect of Freedom? I am high on it right now. I would like more of it everyday. Guess I am an addict. It is insidious how it gets into the system. First it's freedom from diapers and it snowballs from there. Next it broke up my home when I left my parent's to live on the streets or down the street. God knows I have tried to quit. I moved back home once but it did not last. I just had to have more of that sweet freedom. ...>> Read the entire comment.

Liquor RIGHTS!!

Michael - great article on setting the issues straight and the Makers Mark plug!! As a 30 year veteran of the Liquor Industry in AR- I apprecdiate the efforts you and others make to get the facts straight. The anti-alcohol groups continue to use scare tactics and senseless bull dung to prompt up their arguments. Gateway Drugs??? O.K. as if anyone will believe that one. The AR liquor laws are very outdated and need to be addressed, BUT the Voters are the ones that control that aspect. Mr. Langley and the ABC Board understands what needs to be changed, but also do a good job of monitoring and enforcing the Liquor Laws that are on the books. The Private Club issue will continue to be a Cat & Mouse game until the County votes itself Wet, but continues to be the quickest and easiest way to deliver cocktails with dinner to the progressive masses.
Michael - great article on setting the issues straight and the Makers Mark plug!! As a 30 year veteran of the Liquor Industry in AR- I apprecdiate the efforts you and others make to get the facts straight. The anti-alcohol groups continue to use scare tactics and senseless bull dung to prompt up their arguments. Gateway Drugs??? O.K. as if anyone will believe that one. The AR liquor laws are very outdated and need to be addressed, BUT the Voters are the ones that control that aspect. Mr. Langley and the ABC Board understands what needs to be changed, but also do a good job of monitoring and enforcing the Liquor Laws that are on the books. The Private ...>> Read the entire comment.

BAPTIST BS

It seems that those "closet" alcoholics who frequent the churches would choose to control everyone else because they can't control themselves. It is not like we all want a "wet church" but then again there is wine consumed in some churches. Anyone can walk into a church and have a prayer. Likewise, anyone should be able to walk into a restaurant and have a legal beverage with a meal. Unless of course the churches are worried about money being spent outside their congregation rather than being contributed to the passing plate. Not all religious fanatics are Islamic apparently

Liquor laws

I just moved here from South Louisiana and knew there would be culture shock because of the liquor laws. My wife and I are moderate drinkers and do have one cocktail with dinner sometimes and most people we know in Louisiana who drink do so moderately. The laws are silly but we accept them as we knew the situation before we moved. Even in La., we had ridiculous "blue laws" about Sunday store openings. These type of laws are virtually worthless government intrusion costing time and money and the silly part is that if you want booze here you can drive not too far to get it, but you have to pay twice what we had to pay in La., a nice racket for the liquor stores.