March 4, 2009
Tim Pratt -
STARKVILLE -- If Oktibbeha County Sheriff Dolph Bryan has his way, a popular sports bar and restaurant outside of Starkville one day will stop selling beer.
Bryan went before the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors Monday with complaints about Cowbells Sports Grill, located on St. Andrews Lane in the Highlands Plantation development. Highlands Plantation is located in the county, which is dry, but Cowbells can sell beer because the State Tax Commission has given the development resort status.
Bryan now wants the county to ask the state to revoke Highlands Plantation''s resort status. Without resort status, Cowbells would no longer be able to sell beer and residents of Highlands Plantation would no longer be able to possess it, though liquor and wine would still be legal.
The sale of alcohol in Oktibbeha County, outside of Starkville city limits, is illegal. Still, people in the county can possess liquor and wine, but it is illegal to possess beer. The same is true for Sturgis and Maben.
According to Starkville''s beer ordinance, patrons of bars and restaurants can buy beer, liquor and wine by the drink. People also can buy beer and light wine at convenience and grocery stores, but must buy hard liquor and other drinks with more than 5 percent alcohol content at liquor stores, which are licensed by the state Office of Alcohol Beverage Control.
Supervisors took Bryan''s request under consideration and said they would look further into the matter.
According to Bryan, the sheriff''s department responded to 198 incidents in Highlands Plantation over the past year. He acknowledged not all of the calls were to Cowbells -- there were complaints of wild animals and other disturbances -- but said the business has caused "a tremendous amount of problems."
Not only have "disturbances" broken out at Cowbells, but when the parking lot fills up, patrons tend to park in the nearby street and block traffic, Bryan said.
"If we had a fire and needed to get through there, I can see it delaying the fire trucks for at least a few minutes," Bryan said. "We''ve gone out there numerous times, opening the roads, making them move their cars out of the street."
In his argument against Highlands Plantation, the sheriff also cited an October 2005 incident -- well before Cowbells opened -- when a Mississippi State University student was hit by a vehicle while walking intoxicated down St. Andrews Lane after leaving a nearby party. Many MSU students live in the development, he said, and "party into the wee hours of the morning."
"We can control the beer in every part of the county except the resort," Bryan said. "When my men go by the parties nowadays, (party goers) hold their beer cans and beer bottles up to show them that they have it because we can''t charge them with possession."
Bryan said he has no problems with Cowbells'' ownership, including Rick Welch, who could not be reached for comment. Bryan described Welch as "very cooperative" whenever the sheriff''s department is called.
"It''s not him that''s causing the problems," Bryan said of Welch. "It''s the clientele."
Welch appears to have at least one ally in District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer, who spoke out against the effort to remove the development''s resort status.
"I am against the request because this thing has a major economic impact," Trainer said. "Before the board jumps the gun and tries to kill this (status), we need to look at the economic impact because the owner of Cowbells has put a substantial investment in it. There''s a lot of money tied up into this thing. To me, that would be an economic killer for this board to try to do something after the fact."
"Now if the sheriff wants us to help him to increase patrols out there, I''m for that," Trainer continued. "Anything we can do to help you with your job, I am for. But as far as revoking their (resort) status, it''s going to have an economic impact. It would have a serious negative impact on that area."
The rest of the board agreed the economic impact would be substantial and said county tax revenue probably would be adversely affected. But the board also was concerned about the safety of the area.
"As the Board of Supervisors, we have an obligation to the safety of our county as well as our tax base," District 1 Supervisor Carl Clardy said. "But when your chief law officer comes to you and tells you of potential problems here, and there''s already been problems here, we need to look a little further than how many tax dollars we are bringing in."
Bryan agreed with Clardy''s assessment.
"I think we, as people in charge, have an obligation to the parents of every student at Mississippi State to provide them with a safe environment and I think the resort status out here at Highlands Plantation is very dangerous," Bryan said. "I think it leads to too much drinking. I think we''re going to have another tragedy."
Still, Trainer stood firm in his support of Welch.
"The owner has followed the law; he''s done nothing illegal; he''s done what we''ve requested of him," Trainer said. "If we renege his resort status, we kill his business. It would be an economic killer to that restaurant and to that whole area."
Trainer asked President John Young if he should ask Welch to come to the next board meeting on March 16, but Young said it would be "premature."