Religion vs. Retail: Sunday alcohol sales still debated

April 20, 2013 7:25:38 PM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


On any given Sunday, Starkville restaurant owners and managers say you can find large crowds gathered at local eateries. 


Chef Ty Thames, the visionary behind numerous Starkville restaurants, says his namesake, Restaurant Tyler, experiences its largest crowds for Sunday brunch At The Veranda, local NFL fans gather during the fall and winter to take in the day's football games, Chef Jay Yates said. Old Venice General Manager Martin Crawford said an older couple has made sharing a pizza their new Sunday tradition. 


What led to Starkville's blossoming Sunday restaurant scene? Ask all three men, and they will give you the same answer: Sunday alcohol sales. 


It's not that customers only come to their restaurants on Sunday for a drink, they say, it's the fact now their restaurants can cater to a broader segment of diners. The ability to sell beer, liquor and wine by the drink helped expand options, which in turn enticed more patrons and funded more hourly workers' paychecks, they say. 


Greater Starkville Development Partnership officials also point to the alcohol ordinance as a catalyst for revitalizing the downtown business district as a whole - bring people downtown, and you've increased the potential for additional shopping, they say. 


But Sunday sales still has committed opponents. 


Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, who voted against the measure's passage in 2009, says the ordinance should be repealed in order to respect his constituent's wishes and the various religious activities held on Sunday. 




An evolving law 


After multiple public hearings that drew passionate responses from both supporters and opponents, the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved Sunday beer sales in August, 2009 by a 4-3 vote. Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas led the initiative's charge, and Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey supported his "Yea" vote. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn and Perkins cast dissenting votes. 


One month later, the State Tax Commission allowed city restaurants to sell liquor and wine by the glass on Sundays. 


Liquor stores, which are regulated by the state, were not affected by the local ordinance change. 


Chapter 10 of Starkville Code was amended to reflect the change - Sunday alcohol sales are only permitted from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. In addition, businesses with on-premises alcohol consumption are not allowed within 250 feet of the nearest church, school, kindergarten or funeral home building. That restriction is lowered to 100 feet for businesses that sell alcohol for off-site consumption. 


The 2009 ordinance was the second alcohol-related law passed by the city that decade. Four years prior, the aldermen passed an amendment that allowed refrigerated beer sales at grocery and convenience stores. 


Corey, who brought up the 2005 amendment, said he and other members supporting the act faced detractors who claimed that the change would lead to increased safety concerns and illegal activities. Those claims, Corey said, were echoed again in 2009 but at much higher level of theatrics. 


The board passed the 2005 measure by a 6-1 vote. 


"Soon after (its passage), it was as if it was a normal thing; people just didn't talk about it anymore because it, I guess, was no longer an issue. I think Sunday sales received the same treatment," he said. "I realize people have legitimate concerns about the effects of alcohol in the community, but I think most people realize that concern should be spread equally over every of day of the week, not just one day." 


A sharp rise in alcohol-related crimes as predicted by opponents of Starkville's evolving alcohol laws did not occur, Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said Thursday. 


"When (the board) was talking about implementing these changes, we had no idea how it would affect our community," Lindley said. "After observing it for a couple of years, I've seen no significant impact on safety at all. There has been no discernible difference than it was before." 




Vocal opposition 


Ask Dumas how much anti-Sunday alcohol sales feedback he received from the public, and he'll quickly answer: "A ton." 


"But on that same token, I had that much more support for it," he counters. 


Dumas admits he is no stranger to political pressure and sometimes draws disdain - he was quoted in a 2009 Dispatch article on Sunday sales' passage as saying someone called him the anti-Christ - from some Starkville factions. 


Modernizing Starkville's alcohol laws was a main part of his election platform. Once those talks began, Dumas said he knew the opposition would be stiff. 


"It's kind of like most of these types of big efforts - taxes, development - the ones that oppose them are incredibly loud. After (Sunday sales were approved), some of the opponents said, 'Shame on you. I'll never vote for you again.' That's fine," he said. "This was an issue for me, and I was front and center about it. I think there were folks that won (their respective aldermen races) because of it." 




Clashing ideologies 


The biggest opposition to the Sunday alcohol sales ordinance, Dumas said, came from members of Starkville's religious community. Dumas, a member of a downtown church congregation, called that opposition unfortunate. 


"What surprised me was the level of just straight-up hatred that came out about this thing," he said. "We even had someone - a member of the board - get up (in 2009) and...make a statement from the board about regulating church attendance. Fortunately, I think we've proven Sunday sales aren't the end of the world. 


"There's a greater philosophy in question here involving choice. This is just one of the quality of life issues that is exactly how a college town should be," he added. "The others are connectivity, alternative transportation, green spaces, better mixes of residential spaces and urban development. All of these things are the types of environments we've been told we need and play into the bigger picture of Starkville's future. When you look at good college towns, they have these things." 


Perkins, who called for the ordinance's repeal Thursday, said his opposition to Sunday alcohol sales is a matter of listening to his constituents and representing their interests. 


"As an elected official, it is very vital that we listen to the voice of the people," Perkins said. "The people have the right to be heard. The people should be heard on issues regarding our city with regard to the sale of alcohol on Sundays. 


"I had constituents and pastors in the community who indicated to me that they desired for me to oppose any legislation allowing the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Their rationale was -- and still is --Sunday is the Sabbath day, the day we should be worshiping God. We should be in church to worship the savior of our choice. 


"The constituents and pastors stated God has given us Monday through Saturday, and that's certainly enough time to sell and consume alcohol. In light of that, they desire for the day to remain holy and sacred. It is a very good argument. 


"Constituents and pastors have expressed their displeasure with our mayor with his failure and inaction to veto to matter. Votes were unwavering by the opposition; the votes were set in stone. If the mayor had affixed veto to matter to the matter, then the sale of alcohol would not be legal on Sundays." 


Perkins said he personally shares the view of the pastors and constituents opposed to Sunday alcohol sales. 


"Personally I think Sunday should be set aside for worship, sacredness and holiness," he said. "Money is not everything. At this time, I think the measure needs to be repealed and removed from the books so you can only sell alcohol Monday through Saturday." 


Carver said he voted against Sunday alcohol sales in 2009 because most of his Ward's residents were against the measure. Vaughn, who also voted against Sunday sales in 2009, did not return phone calls for an interview. 




Sales and sales tax 


Since 2009's ordinance, Starkville's dining scene has experienced the emergence of numerous Sunday brunch options. Both Crawford and Thames say they have invested time, money and additional staff to handle their expanded menu's popularity. 


"Prior to Sunday sales, we didn't offer a brunch buffet partly because we were not allowed to sell alcohol," Crawford said. "There wasn't much we could do with it because we couldn't offer the customer the full experience, which in my opinion includes bloody marys and mimosas. We now have more people covering brunch shifts -- Sunday in general-- than we did before (alcohol sales) passed." 


Thames said the popularity of Restaurant Tyler's brunch services moved him to plan similar offerings at Bin 612 in May. 


"On a busy weekend, we'll have 550 people come through an 80-seat restaurant; on a regular day, we'll have about 300. We even relocated a chef here that worked at New Orleans and Hattiesburg to work in Tyler's kitchen (because of demand)," he said. "Sunday sales really added 52 of the busiest days of the years in regard to finances. The more options you have, the more likely you'll want to experience something, whether if you're having a mimosa or not." 


Yates also said he has added staff at The Veranda to keep pace with growing Sunday crowds. 


"If I had to guess, we employed 40-50 or so before Sunday sales. Now, I'm at 60-65," he said. "We do take the importance of Sundays to our employees in consideration. Sundays are still family days and church days to most, so we rotate shifts out -- 'You work this one, I'll work the next one.' We take them in consideration, but you still have many wanting to work those days because they know the restaurant will be busy." 


The other direct benefactor of increased alcohol sales and dining is Starkville's tax coffers. Not only does the city collect sales tax for all purchases, but a two-percent tax is also added on top of food, beverage and hotel expenditures. A portion of those funds are diverted back to the city, while the remainder is split between various initiatives, including tourism, Starkville Parks Commission and various Mississippi State University student programs. 


Sales tax returns have grown every year except one since 2001, while two-percent collections did not dip once during that same period. 


The city's two- percent revenues grew five percent the year after Sunday alcohol sales were implemented and seven percent the following year. 


"Do we have exact numbers to show how much sales tax we are collecting just on Sundays? We don't know those numbers, but since two-percent returns have continued to grow, the evidence is there to show Sunday sales are a factor," Dumas said. "Anyone who wants proof of this initiative's success should go downtown or by the Veranda on Sunday and look and see how busy they are." 




Changing perceptions 


GSDP CEO Jennifer Gregory said one of the most important byproducts of Sunday alcohol sales has been increased foot traffic in the downtown corridor. Increased traffic from passersby encouraged retail stores to open their doors on Sundays when they previously remained closed, she said. 


Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau, a group under the GSDP's umbrella of services, formally supported Sunday sales in 2009, Gregory said. 


"Sunday sales really created a climate downtown for people to spend their time on Sunday. Essentially, the overall development of downtown as a destination encouraged other entrepreneurs to consider opening a business there," she said. "Before we knew it, we saw more retailers popping up." 


As downtown saw more businesses filling Main Street over the past four years, other nearby developments were initiated, Gregory said. Mixed-use retail and apartment developments at Central Station highlight how development spurs nearby projects, she said. 


Marketing downtown as a dining and shopping location is also one of the main pitches the GSDP uses in luring tourists. By establishing Starkville as a three-day weekend getaway, she said, the city has more opportunities to not only collect tax dollars, but also share its unique story and culture -- hopefully bringing visitors back in the future. 


"You can't promote spending the whole weekend in Starkville if you don't have things for people to do," Gregory said. "Sunday sales really was the start of changing the way people think about Starkville as a tourist town. To me, that's what helped the community grow. A successful football team, combined with an aggressive city marketing campaign, progressive thought like Sunday sales and the revitalization of downtown not only has led to record sales tax returns, but also record tourism spending. We've seen increases near 30 percent over the past four years. Our growth has been steady." 


"At the end of the day, changing the perception of our community is beneficial," she added. "While we hold our values close and the small-town feel still exists, we are a college town.  


"We have not lost anything that is uniquely ours."

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch