Circuit Judge Susan Weaver ruled last week that the petition for the ballot initiative to lift Van Buren County’s ban on alcohol sales should be allowed to proceed. The plaintiffs in the case, the Stay Strong, Status Quo A Local Option Ballot Question Committee; Bevans Family Limited Partnership, argued that the petition should be invalidated. The complaint cited that David Byard was a paid canvasser, that collecting email/phone numbers of signatures violated state law, and that Pam Bradford was in error by verifying the signatures. Byard’s volunteer group, “Let Van Buren County Vote,” collected 4,151 verified signatures of the 3,852 required by state law. Judge Weaver’s decision upholds the voice of the people. I anticipate that the state supreme court will uphold the lower court’s ruling and that this question will go before the people in a few short weeks. Byard stated, “I believe that Judge Weaver upheld the Arkansas State Law.”
This is not the first time that the Bevans family has attempted to intervene in local politics. They were also unsuccessful in Boone and Benton County when similar ballot measures were presented. These decisions should be made on the local level and devoid of external influences. The fact that the Bevans family business model seems to involve staving off the competition this way should be revealing.
Van Buren County is one of 34 remaining dry counties in the state. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “An 1855 law gave municipalities the power to ban alcohol, mandating that prospective taverns be approved by a local majority. This established a precedent that largely still exists today, as counties have been able to hold referendums on whether or not to allow alcohol to be sold within their borders.” Arkansas’s archaic alcohol prohibition laws have been under legislative review over the last few years. In 2017 the General Assembly expanded the sale of Alcohol and liquor sales allowing grocery stores to sell a larger variety of alcohol. This legislation was one of the final barriers that were preventing companies like Trader Joe’s from doing business in Arkansas. This legislation, backed by the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Association and Walmart lobby, stimulated the supply chain for Arkansas’s growing microbrewery and winery industry. As this legislation moved forward guess who showed up in opposition.
The local economic impact has been one of the primary motivations for Byard’s group since the onset of the campaign. Byard, who is not a drinker himself, fears the county is missing out on opportunities by not having access to packaged sales. “Over 30,000 people rent in Wyndham every year, and right now if you wanted to buy a six-pack of beer you have to drive 40 miles and a lot of people will make that drive and let’s face it they don’t wait 40 miles until they start drinking,” said Byard.
Following the passage of a similar measure, Boone county saw a 34.9 percent tax revenue increase. The economic indicators of allowing alcohol sales point to a significant fiscal impact in tourism, restaurants, and minimal job creation opportunities. Van Buren County tourism is trending upward by expanding ATV trails, recreational water sports, and this only promises to stimulate that growth. Capturing that customer base explains why folks from neighboring counties are so concerned about your vote.
The number of beer cans I routinely pick up along the road of my home is evidence that alcohol consumption is already happening in the county. The significant number of Keystone Light cans makes me question the life choices of these thoughtless litterers. In addition, we have approximately ten private clubs operating and serving alcohol in the county. Expanding access to packaged sales will allow that revenue to remain in the county. Little towns like Shirley could benefit from any additional tax revenue opportunities this measure could create.
That is not the prevailing narrative that we will likely see leading up to the election. The narrative of fear will likely fill our mailboxes showing us images of what the county will become. The narrative will be funded by outside influences whose intent is to protect their own self-interests. From the onset of the initiative, Mr. Byard’s intent has been clear. He believes that the wet/dry issue should be one made by the people saying, “In a democracy, the will of the people should be the final voice.” Unfortunately, more and more outside influences invest money in local politics to further benefit themselves. Expect the smear and fear campaign to continue in the next 60 days.
Community-led petitions similar to the “Let Van Buren County Vote” are extremely difficult absent a pandemic and require committed volunteers. Grassroots efforts like these are what is missing from the political narrative. They are led by people who develop ideas and want to give the community an opportunity to have their voices heard. Mr. Byard has traveled every road in this county and driven over 10,000 miles in his personal vehicle to give you that chance. The integrity of local elections should not be compromised by external influences.