Drunk with power

The following report first appeared at HomeinHenderson.com on Feb. 20, but two letters in Saturday’s Daily Dispatch, one against beer and one in favor, made it worth reminding readers about the issue at hand.

For those people considering a run for municipal office in Henderson this fall, a wedge issue may have emerged at the most recent City Council meeting.

Forget gay marriage, Social Security, Iraq or any of the other issues that drove the national campaigns in 2004. And don’t expect the dominant local issues of late, economic development and crime, to be decisive when Hendersonians go to the polls in October. All the candidates will talk about the need to bring jobs to the area and to stop the violence, but don’t look for any dramatic differences in how they would attempt those grand achievements.

But there is a fundamental social issue that could swing enough votes to make a difference if the city is blessed with some close contests: alcohol.

It has been more than 70 years since the repeal of Prohibition, but booze remains an issue that slices through the rural South, with its dueling traditions of fundamentalist Christianity and bootleg whiskey.

Vance County’s relatively liberal laws on alcohol sales, allowing the sale of hard alcohol by the glass, have helped make Henderson a dining hub. Oxford Mayor Al Woodlief, a proponent of a pending Granville County referendum on booze by the glass, argues that restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday have chosen Henderson over its Interstate 85 neighbor to the west because they can count on the profits from selling alcohol with their food.

But Henderson’s edge in such economic development skirmishes isn’t enough to change local minds about the evils of alcohol.

City leaders have presented a united front against convenience stores whose sole purpose in some poor neighborhoods seems to be to supply cheap beer, wine and malt liquor at all hours. A notable success this year was Zackery’s Market on Orange Street, which lost its liquor license after the city bombarded state regulators with statistics showing the high rate of crime, including shootings, in the immediate vicinity of the store.

That city unity breaks down, however, when the issue of alcohol sales hits closer to home.

City Council member Mary Emma Evans was alone Monday night in speaking against allowing the Henderson-Vance Chamber of Commerce to hold its Alive After Five concerts at the city’s Operations & Service Center again this year. The first of the two events is set for April 28.

“I think we’re promoting alcoholism by allowing alcoholic beverages to be consumed on city property,” she said.

Anheuser-Busch distributor Harris Inc. of Henderson is the lead sponsor of the two-concert series, which also has flown the banner of Budweiser’s True Music promotion. Harris sells beer at Alive After Five, and Chamber President Bill Edwards told the council that those beer sales are the primary profit engine for the event, which has evolved from a way to bring people downtown into a way to raise money for the Chamber.

In short, Edwards said, no beer, no Alive After Five.

Before last year, Alive After Five was held on county property, the courthouse grounds at the intersection of Rose Avenue and Chestnut Street downtown. (Rain forced the first Alive After Five concert into the armory on Dabney Drive, a facility jointly owned by the city and county, and beer was a big part of the evening.) Citing the nuisance of construction at the neighboring Embassy Square site, Edwards sought and received permission to move the event to the Operations Center last year.

The city does not make the Operations Center available for private rentals but allows the city manager to make exceptions for community organizations with special events.

Mayor Clem Seifert said the Chamber doesn’t have many options for a free-flowing Alive After Five. School facilities, the YMCA and Vance-Granville Community College are out because of the beer.

Evans never liked the idea of allowing the event on city property. Alive After Five is all about the beer, she argued Monday, and allowing the event is promoting alcohol.

Evans explained that alcoholism destroyed half a dozen of her siblings, and she said the city should do all it can to stop that destructive force.

Edwards countered that the beer costs more at Alive After Five than it does at nearby stores and that law enforcement officers keep a close eye on the proceedings. There has never been a fight or other trouble at Alive After Five, Edwards said, and every person who drinks must pass by a line of police and sheriff’s officers on the way out, providing a deterrent to drunkenness and a chance to spot anyone who might be unsafe to drive.

“We’ll never be able to legislate morality,” Edwards said. “I wish we could.”

City Manager Eric Williams said there is no policy against alcohol on city property, although council action has banned alcohol in certain areas, such as Fox Pond Park and the Aycock Recreation Complex. He also noted that the city has held Christmas parties with alcohol on city property.

Evans would like a blanket ban on alcohol on city property, but she found no support on the council for that idea.

Instead, council member John Wester made a motion for the council to leave the decision up to Williams, who emphasized that his decision would be to allow Alive After Five at the Operations Center. In effect, the council’s 6-1 vote (Ranger Wilkerson was absent) approved the use of the city building for an alcohol-full event.

That might have been the end of the great alcohol debate, at least until next year, except that the Rev. Frank Sossamon of South Henderson Pentecostal Holiness Church rose to address the council just before its vote.

“I think the city fathers are endorsing alcoholism when they’re doing this. That’s the message they’re sending out,” he said. “I think it’s sad.”

Sossamon said he will not be silent in his opposition to Alive After Five as a public beer fest. He said he will go to city taxpayers to ensure they know what’s happening on their property. “I will take a public stand as a minister.”

(Check out Sossamon’s subsequent letter to the editor in The Daily Dispatch.)

South Henderson Pentecostal is one of the city’s biggest churches, and Sossamon and Evans surely aren’t the only ministers in town who see sin in public alcohol consumption. There could be a lot of support out there for any candidate for council or mayor who campaigns on a promise to ban alcohol on city property or at least to stop Alive After Five.

In a possibly related matter, the council and city management have another chance to show their active opposition to alcoholism.

Janice Jeffreys of the Human Relations Commission appeared earlier in Monday’s meeting to ask that the city provide new space for Alcoholics Anonymous to meet.

The Embassy project drove the group out of a now-demolished meeting space on Chestnut Street, and the replacement site, the armory, is in such disrepair that the Board of Elections is moving its West Henderson polling place next door to the fire station and the Shriners can’t rent the building out for their fish fry and steam fest.

The city has provided free space for Alcoholics Anonymous as a community service. It will be interesting to see whether and where that continues amid ever-increasing budget pressures. Could the site of Alive After Five also serve as the after-hours home of Alcoholics Anonymous?