Voters have a chance on Tuesday to return this northern Alabama city to the days of Prohibition.
A measure to end the sale of alcohol in Athens is up for a citywide vote, a rare instance where voters could overturn a previous vote to allow sales. Business interests are against repeal, but church leaders who helped organize the petition drive that got the measure on the ballot are asking members to pray and fast in support of a ban.
Christians who oppose drinking on moral grounds believe they have a chance to win, however small.
“If it can be voted out anywhere, it will be here because so many Christians are against it,” said Teresa Thomas, who works in a Christian book store.
Business leaders argue that ending the sale of beer, wine and liquor would hurt tax revenues and send the message that Athens is backward.
“Economic impact is really the big issue,” said Carl Hunt, an organizer of the pro-alcohol sale Citizens for Economic Progress.
The United States went dry in 1920 after the 18th Amendment outlawed the production, transportation and sale of alcohol. Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Now, less than four years after they first voted to legalize alcohol sales, the nearly 22,000 residents of Athens will decide whether to prohibit alcohol sales within the city, located about 95 miles north of Birmingham. Possession and consumption would remain legal.
Such “wet-to-dry” votes aren’t unheard of, but they’re rare, said Jim Mosher of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which tracks public policy issues including alcohol laws.
“In Barrow, Alaska, when they legalized alcohol sales, problems went through the roof,” Mosher said. “Then, when they banned it again, it improved.”
Result could hinge on turnout
City Clerk John Hamilton didn’t have an early estimate on turnout among the city’s nearly 12,000 registered voters, but he said the turnout could be good based on the large number of absentee ballots cast before the polls opened.
“It’s the alcohol issue that will bring the people out,” he said.
Twenty-six of Alabama’s 67 counties, including Limestome, where Athens is located, don’t allow alcohol sales. Besides the Athens vote, residents of the southern Alabama town of Thomasville were to cast their ballots Tuesday on whether to legalize alcohol sales.
Regardless of whether Athens winds up wet or dry, a leader of the 138-year-old National Prohibition Party is glad voters have a chance to decide. Such issues rarely make it to the ballot any more, said attorney Howard Lydick, a member of the party’s executive committee.
“The beer and wine industry has very good PR,” Lydick said. “Those pushing (prohibition) have been pushed aside.”
The Rev. Eddie Gooch feels good about the chances of ending alcohol sales in Athens, but he isn’t taking any chances.
A leader of the petition drive, Gooch urged members of his United Methodist Church to pray and fast on election day and the two days leading up to it. Church volunteers have sent thousands of letters and made phone calls encouraging people to vote “dry.”
Extra cash from sales taxes
Mayor Dan Williams said the city government is making nearly $250,000 in extra sales taxes directly tied to alcohol, and the city’s schools get the same amount.
Besides that money, he said, overall tax revenues have grown since alcohol sales were legalized in January 2004 — an increase he attributes partly to alcohol sales.
An upscale Italian restaurant recently moved to Athens from the nearby dry city of Hartselle in order to sell alcohol, and Williams said other restaurants have arrived since it went wet.
“It’s a big deal for a small town to get a new restaurant,” he said.
Gooch isn’t worried about the city losing businesses or tax revenues if alcohol sales are banned. Normal economic growth and God will make up any difference if residents dump the bottle, he said.
“We believe that God will honor and bless our city,” Gooch said.