June 29, 2012 Share


Somerset votes 2,167 to 1,464 to end Prohibition & begin new era

The results came in slowly at first, a precinct at a time, like droplets falling from the rim of an empty beer bottle.

The “yes” votes, signifying approval of alcohol sales in Somerset had an established an early lead. With four precincts reporting Tuesday evening, the margin was 326 votes; one more precinct, and the difference shrank by a few votes. It was clear the “no” contingent wasn’t going away. The crowd — about 30  or so strong gathered in the county clerk’s office, the majority seeming to be “dry” supporters — remained stoic, stone-faced. Everyone knew — anything could still happen.

Then came the sixth precinct, Somerset 4A. The numbers jumped — 914 “yes” and 479 “no.” The silence broke. An audible “ooooh” was heard inside the room. The mood changed in a heartbeat.

It was clear: This thing was the “wet” side’s to lose.

And indeed, those in favor of selling alcohol in Somerset won out in Tuesday’s option election for registered voters within the city limits. By a total of 2,176 “yes” votes to 1,464 against, with the “wet” side claiming almost 60 percent of the vote, history was made in the seat of Pulaski County.

Winning “Wets”

“I may have laid the strategy for this,” said David Weddle, “but it’s not a win for me. It’s a win for the City of Somerset.”

Weddle, son of the late Dr. Richard Weddle, founded Progress Somerset. The group was responsible for the bright green signs promoting economic development, increased jobs, and safer streets seen more and more around town as the campaign progressed, and for making this option election a reality in the first place.

Weddle calmly watched the TV displaying results in the county clerk’s office Tuesday night, and shared an emotional hug with his wife when it was all said and done. There wasn’t much emotion displayed by Weddle throughout the campaign, and that was by design: He had been insistent on keeping his side’s arguments intellectual and respectful to avoid a firefight of impassioned debate as has so often been the case regarding alcohol in Pulaski County.

“I’m really happy with the way (that approach) turned out,” said Weddle. “I understand (the “dry” side’s) passion for their message and I respect them for it, but I think the City of Somerset really came together this time and said what they wanted. … I really feel accomplished. All we wanted to do was provide information, and if people could see what other communities were doing to benefit from (alcohol sales), we thought it would empower voters to get out, and we were right.”

Weddle admitted to being nervous throughout the day leading up to the election, and said that while many people had told him that they were privately supporting Progress Somerset, they felt uncomfortable voicing that opinion publicly

“I was concerned that when people walked into the polls, if they voted their conscience, we would win, but we didn’t know how much pressure they were getting from the opposition to side that way,” said Weddle. “We said as long as we won by at least 300 votes, we could show a decided margin and wouldn’t be forced into a contested vote.”

This is not the end of Progress Somerset either, said Weddle. The group was formed to push forward all forms of economic development within Somerset, with ideas ranging from a centralized farmer’s market downtown to a combined city-county government.

“What we’ll tackle next, we have no idea,” said Weddle. “For some reason, we decided to tackle the hard (issue) on first.”

“Dry” in Defeat

Despite the fact that the decision was over mathematically before the final precinct came in, “dry” supporters hung around, seemingly hoping for some kind of miracle. When the final tally was announced, they all filed out into the front lobby of the old Pulaski County Courthouse and gathered in a circle, where Ed Amundson, pastor at High Street Baptist Church, addressed the collection of forlorn faces.

“This is not a loss,” he told those who had hoped so hard for alcohol to be denied, as it had in the last such Somerset election in 2001. “It’s just the way it came down.”

Amundson urged his fellow “no” voters to be gracious in defeat, to treat their ideological opponents in a Christian manner, and to come back together as a community following the spread of the divisive issue over the last few months.

“This is bigger than us against alcohol,” he told the circle around him before leading them in a prayer,  then sharing hugs and a few tears as the crowd exited the courthouse doors.

“The love of Christ is bigger than the outcome of an election,” Amundson told the Commonwealth Journal. “We don’t always agree with some of the decisions laid before us, but at the end of the day … this is back to business as usual, loving our neighbor.”

Amundson said that the “dry” forces — spearheaded by the group to which he belongs, KIDS (Keep It Dry and Safe) — “worked about as hard as we could and put the money in,” but credited Progress Somerset with being “well-organized” and getting their message out.

“Would I say I’m disappointed? Yes, I’m disappointed, but not discouraged,” said Amundson. “Somerset is, Somerset was, and Somerset always will be a wonderful city. Now we’re going to join with (Progress Somerset’s) research and pray it’s true,” referring to statistics from state law enforcement agencies show that “dry” counties have higher DUI rates than those with alcohol sales.

When asked if the “dry” contingent would try and launch another option election after the mandatory minimum of three years’ time to overturn Tuesday’s results, Amundson quickly said, “No,” before David Carr, the head of KIDS and King of Kings Radio chimed in, “We have no plans at this time.” Amundson added that there had been no discussions to that effect.

How We Got Here

Following the end of prohibition in 1933, Pulaski faced a crossroads in terms of alcohol. Residents at the time chose the sober path, and until a couple of wineries got the OK from voters and the City of Burnside went “moist” in the last decade, the county had remained as dry as a parched mouth in the dog days of summer.

Somerset watched as Burnside transformed itself over the last eight years, expanding its borders and adding new businesses, unable to sell any alcohol of its own. However, earlier this past spring, Progress Somerset sent out a petition asking if Somerset residents wanted the alcohol issue on the ballot, 11 years after the last such attempt. They did, and on March 30, Weddle returned those petitions to county clerk Ralph Troxtell and the campaign for alcohol sales got underway.

The vote was to make Somerset “wet.” As opposed to “moist” Burnside, which can only serve alcohol by the individual drink in restaurants of a certain size, Somerset will be able to not only do that but also allow sales of retail package liquor, such as in specialty and grocery stores.

So What Comes Next?

Don’t expect to see any taps flowing in town immediately. The earliest a business could apply for a liquor license is 60 days after the election is certified, and the city will need to put its policies into ordinance form and work with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Office on the distribution of licenses before things get into full swing.

“We will send a notice to the local newspaper telling when we’re accepting applications,” said Steve Humphress, general counsel for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). “By law, a city … has to pre-approve them first. Until we know the city is working on its ordinances, we won’t go ahead and accept (applications). We will communicate with the city on this, and when it’s done, we’ll notify city residents of the number of quota licenses that they can apply for.”

That’s a catch: There’s a limit to the number of liquor licenses that will be available. Both Tom Bustle, ABC administrator for the City of Danville, and Nathan Jones of the Department of ABC said that even if it’s a city election, the quote is based on county population numbers. Licenses can be obtained by a quota of one for every 2,300 or 2,500 citizens depending on the license.

With a population of just over 63,000 as of the 2010 Census, it would seem that Somerset could have a quite a few liquor stores. But Humphress said that isn’t the case, and that city population would likely be the determining factor. And although the city and ABC could help decide whatever number is appropriate, Humphress said it would still likely fall along the one-per-2,300/2,500-citizens lines, meaning Somerset —  with a population just a hair under 12,000 people — would have much more limited numbers.

Bustle said that in Danville’s case, ABC administrators decided that they would be eligible for six LD (liquor drink) and six LP (liquor package) options. The LD license permit the sale of distilled spirits and wine for consumption on the premises, such as bars or restaurants without regard to food sales. LP licenses allow for package liquor sales, such as liquor stores, or in grocery or convenience stores only if that area has a separate entrance from the main store.

The state ABC office is expected a look at Somerset’s population and determine the number of licenses for which it will be eligible

Kentucky law 804 KAR 9:050 states that “a general retail liquor licenses quota based upon county population for any area within that county in which prohibition has been repealed (is established). Instances may arise, however, in which the quota based on county population permits the issuance of retail liquor licenses in a number totally disproportionate to the population of the area in said county. … It is, therefore, necessary for the board to establish individual quotas when such a situation as above described arises.”

Of course, Somerset’s population is a mere fraction of the county’s population as a whole, despite the fact that it is the commercial hub not just of the county but arguably a multi-county region in south-central Kentucky. Thus, observers will want to watch keenly for what the ABC decides is an appropriate number of licenses to be granted for the City of Somerset in the coming months.

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal