Sunday, January 30, 2000

Grant vote on alcohol sought

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MOUNT ZION, Ky. — There is a sense that the group of regulars gathered around the counter at The Country Store know just about everything going on in and around this tiny burg in northern Grant County.

        They all grew up here and meet almost daily to drink coffee, swap stories and catch up on the latest local news.

        But even they were surprised to learn that another effort is under way to make it legal for carry-outs like The Country Store to sell beer.

        “We haven't heard a thing about it,” said owner Janet Griffith, 49, as she rang up an order of soft drinks and cat food for one of her regular customers.

        “So that's started again,” said Jeff Baker, 45, one of the regulars. “Well, it will just fail again. People here don't want things to change. They don't want alcohol to be sold.”

        A group called Freedom of Choice has been circulating petitions in Grant County for about the last month in an effort to put the issue of alcohol sales on the ballot later this year.

        Grant County is one of the 75 counties in Kentucky, out of 120, that is ""dry,” meaning it is illegal to sell alcohol. It is permissible to buy alcohol in another county and consume it here.

        Little is known about the Freedom of Choice group. Neither its name, phone number nor address are printed on the petitions, which it has placed in about a dozen carry-out and convenient stores throughout the county of about 20,000 people. The Country Store was not asked to circulate the petition, Mrs. Griffith said.

        Even those at some of the stores where the petitions have been placed don't know much, if anything, about the group.

        “A lady came in here and asked if she could leave a petition, and I said sure,” said Lee Spiring, owner of the Coach Stop on U.S. 25 in Crittenden, a small town inKenton County.

        “I can't remember her name. But not many people seem interested, though. We've probably had the petitions here for a couple of weeks, but we've only had two signatures,” Mr. Spiring said.

        Signing has been more brisk at the Interstate 275 exit in Crittenden. A clerk at a Shell station said three or four pages have been filled up with signatures.

        Across the street at the Chevron gas station, carry-out clerk Karen Hall said two of the petition sheets — each of which has room for 13 signatures — were filled in about two weeks.

        “People seem real interested to sign,” said Ms. Hall, 26, who lives in nearby Dry Ridge. “I think it would pass if they get it to the voters.”

        Mr. Hall said the petition deals with the sale of package beer only, not beer or alcohol by the drink, as it is sold in bars and restaurants.

        State law requires signatures from 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election to put an issue on the ballot. Based on last November's election, which had a light turnout, Freedom of Choice would need 827 signatures to put the issue up for consideration, Grant County Clerk Judy Fortner said Friday.

        The group has begun running commercials touting the petition drive on WNKR, a county music radio station in Dry Ridge, said Promotions Director Amanda Cox.

        “All the ads say is for people interested in putting the wet/dry issue on the ballot to sign a petition, and then they list where the petitions are,” Ms. Cox said.

        The group does not list a phone number in the ad but does give its address as a Dry Ridge post office box. Freedom of Choice also does not have a published phone number.

        Grant County Judge-executive Darrell Link said he knows nothing about Freedom of Choice or who might be involved in the petition drive.

        But he is preparing to join with a number of area churches in opposing the effort.

        “We've had votes and petition drives on this before,” Mr. Link said. “They've failed before, and I predict they'll fail this time. Most people here are opposed to alcohol sales of any kind.

        “And there are a number of churches ready to stand up and defeat this effort if it gets on the ballot,” he said.

        Grant County residents don't want the problems that could come with alcohol sales, said Marietta Hedges, the assistant administrator at Williamstown Baptist Church.

        “Alcohol can cause crime and accidents, it can damage your health and it causes homes and families to split up,” Mrs. Hedges said. “Christians should feel that way. I know we do at this church.”

        Grant County has been dry since the beginning of World War II. Proponents of alcohol sales were successful in putting the issue on the ballot in 1985, but it lost by about 4-to-1, said County Attorney James Purcell.

        But the community is growing and new people with possibly new attitudes are moving in.

        Grant County, Ky. is the second-fastest growing county in Greater Cincinnati. Its population increased 26 percent, to 19,828 in 1997 from 15,737 in 1990.

        “There's been a big change in this county since then, with a lot of new people moving in,” Mr. Purcell said. “But I'm not sure there has been enough to change the way people feel about alcohol and the problems they believe it would bring to the community.”

        Three years ago another group that was trying to attract the motor speedway that eventually settled on building in Gallatin County collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

        But the vote was never taken because of a technicality. The petition violated state law because it sought a Saturday election rather than Tuesday, when elections in Kentucky must be held.

        Dallas Richardson, 45, also of Mount Zion, said he believes that sooner or later alcohol will be sold in Grant County.

        “It may not pass this time, but with all these young people moving in, we'll eventually be wet. It's going to happen.”

        Back at The Country Store, Mr. Baker said that if people want to drink they don't have far to drive to get alcohol.

        “Most of the counties around us are wet, so if they want beer it's easy to get,” he said.

        Mount Zion resident Mark Shepperd, 37, doesn't believe the issue will be passed by voters. But he wouldn't mind if it did.

        “If you're selling beer, I'll buy it,” he told Mrs. Griffith, the store's owner.


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