Proponents of legalizing alcohol sales in a handful of Arkansas counties are leading petition drives to put the wet/dry question on the November's ballot. The groups are also getting some financial assistance from the world's largest retailer.
Ballot Question Committees in six Arkansas counties and one city are trying to legalize alcohol sales this election cycle. Crawford, Independence, Johnson, Little River, Yell, and Randolph counties as well as the town of Farmington in Washington County have active drives.
Petitioners need to collect signatures from at least 38 percent of local voters to have the option placed on the ballot. Krista DeBuhr from Clarksville, Arkansas is a member of the committee Keep Our Dollars in Johnson County. She says it was formed with the goal of revitalizing the sleepy town of about 9,300 people nestled at the western edge of the Ozarks.
“We wanted to see our town be one of those charming small towns like Asheville, North Carolina and places like that where everyone's on the square and spending time together and eating outside and there's more music and entertainment... And in order for restaurants to come to Johnson County, they want to be able to sell liquor. That's really what is [comes] down to,” DeBuhr says.
The petition drive is getting some major corporate backing. Bentonville-based Walmart has contributed to six of sevem pro-alcohol campaigns around Arkansas. As of this report, it has given a total of $474,500, or 93 percent of all money raised by those six campaigns so far, based on a review of financial disclosure documents filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
In an emailed statement, company spokeswoman Anne Hatfiled said,“Walmart believes the laws needs to be modernized to provide our customers a full assortment of adult beverages as part of a convenient and comfortable shopping experience.”
“They believe that [supporting the pro-alcohol campaigns] will help their bottom line, obviously,” said Bob Carius, the chairman of Keep Our Dollars in Independence County. Walmart has given the group $83,000 to pay for things like ads, legal aid and canvassers.
“This is a long maturing process with Walmart. It didn't happen overnight. It was a lot of discussions and back and forth. And they found we were committed to doing what we wanted to do and the rationale is good and so they supported it,” he says.
Carius also wants to bring more business and restaurant revenue to places like downtown Batesville. Dry since 1944, Independence County has seen residents buy liquor across the county line in Newport for some time now.
Calls made to several organized groups opposing the pro-alcohol drive were not returned. The Keep Independence Dry and Safe (KIDS) committee is being funded by individual contributions. The Conway County Legal Beverage Association is largely funding opposition to the Johnson County wet petition. It's given $145,000 to the Russelville-based Share Committee, which in turn has given much of that money to the Stand Stong, Stay Dry, Be Safe Committee. It has spent most of the money on television, radio, newspaper and billboard advertisements to counter the message of Keep Our Dollars in Johnson County.
The various local-option campaigns have until August to hand in petitions to their county clerks.
Correction: a correction was made to the caption of the image above.