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Effort to allow expanded alcohol sales in Oldham County begins

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By Kenny Colston

A vote to expand alcohol sales in the county is forthcoming, after the Oldham County Chamber and Economic Development confirmed to county leaders they would spearhead the effort.

Chamber Executive Director Deana Epperly Karem said her organization is targeting a March 2015 special election for county voters to decide whether to allow package alcohol sales throughout the county. An educational campaign will take place from August until October, before a petition drive to get the initiative on the ballot starts in November.

“We’re very optimistic (the initiative will pass),” Epperly Karem said. “We’ve been getting lots of inquiries for a couple of years. There was a demand in 2003 for limited sales and now there’s a demand for the expansion of that.”

Currently, packaged sales are only allowed in the city of La Grange, after the city council passed a law authorizing the city to go “wet” in August 2013. The city currently has three package liquor stores, the maximum allowed under state law, which is based on population.

But the alcohol regulations in Oldham County are tighter, with alcohol only available to be purchased by the drink in county restaurants and with special status for alcohol availability at the Oldham County Country Club and Yew Dell Botanical Gardens.

That piecemealed approach to the county’s liquor availability is another reason for expansion, Epperly Karem said.

“The thought was, if we don’t do it (countywide), which precinct was next?” she said. “This will be, will we do it here or not. To an outsider, we may look divided (under the current status).”

Epperly Karem said the push is about keeping dollars inside Oldham County by recognizing many residents cross county lines to buy alcohol, therefore spending their money in other places. Voting to allow expanded sales would lead to an expansion of retail and other business in the county instead of allowing the money to leave the county.

“Let’s keep it in Oldham County,” she said.

The push has the support of many county leaders, including County Judge-Executive David Voegele and several magistrates. But not everyone is thrilled that the process is underway.

Dan Doty, co-owner of the only locally- owned liquor store in La Grange, All Aboard Liquors, expressed reservations about expanding sales throughout the county.

“It’s kind of a bad position for me,” he said. “Let the people speak. If the county desires to have more liquor stores, let them have it. We aren’t going to argue with that, we have no argument.”

But Doty said he wasn’t sure the county needs more liquor stores, because those in the eastern portion of the county can use his and other stores in La Grange and north and south Oldham County is a quick drive away to stores in east Louisville.

“I question the need for more stores,” he said. “North and South Oldham can travel a short distance and have all the selection they want.”

If the measure passes, Doty said he would be open to the idea of owning a second liquor store in the county, but couldn’t commit to doing so.

“We would certainly consider that,” he said. “It’s going over well and people like the store. And people like the idea of buying local.”

Crime not a concern

One of the largest criticisms the Chamber expects for the push for expanded sales is that it will attract more crime to the county. But both Epperly Karem and Scott Whitehouse, the chair of the Chamber’s committee leading the charge, deny that claim.

“There’s a lot of facts and misconceptions regarding counties going wet by those who don’t want this,” Whitehouse said. “Going wet doesn’t mean more DUIs, that’s been proven time and time again.”

Whitehouse said he’s heard support for the expansion from several in law enforcement in the county, because it would make their job of enforcement and tracking much easier since they will be aware of where alcohol is sold in the county, instead of tracking it coming in from outside the county.

“Quite honestly I have yet to find a law enforcement management person who is not in support of this,” he said.

Epperly Karem said to the Chamber’s knowledge, DUI incidents in La Grange have not increased due to the allowing of expanded sales in the city for more than a year.

“What we found out is DUIs did not increase in 2003 (for limited sales) and La Grange has not had an increase in DUIs,” Epperly Karem said. “More crime or DUIs is not a factor as a result of any new law.”

The expected March 2015 special election on the issue will be a full “wet” vote, she said, but the goal is not to have new bars or “dance clubs” move into Oldham County.

In fact, the ballot question will specifically try to protect against such things, Epperly Karem said, because the chamber’s goal is package liquor sales and sales at gas stations and retail outlets.

“As far as the whole bar concept, that’s not an alcohol issues, that’s a zoning issue,” she said. “We’re not looking to add bars or dance clubs. Our goal is business development to keep some of this money in Oldham County.”

Economic benefits

The biggest reason for the vote is economics, the Chamber said.

The organization is pointing toward the growth in revenue in La Grange, which collects more than $230,000 in licensing fees for the sale of liquor between restaurants, retail beer and retail package stores. The county Fiscal Court, on the other hand, collects $8,000 for a 5 percent license fee. An expansion into full sales could explode the county revenues as well, the Chamber said.

“We certainly know what the economic benefits have been in communities like us and it’s been hundreds of thousands of dollars, just in taxes,” Whitehouse said.

The current law, which requires restaurants to have a 70-30 ratio in sales between food and alcohol, prohibits many businesses from locating in county, he said.

Whitehouse said a major hotel chain passed on an opportunity to locate in Oldham County because of the current liquor laws. Declining to name the hotel chain, Whitehouse said they opted to build in Jefferson County because they offer a “happy hour” to guests where they pass out a limited number of alcohol drinks as an incentive to stay at their hotel. Under that marketing plan, they would have been in violation of the county’s 70-30 rule.

“Some of these laws are dated and antiquated,” Whitehouse said. “This isn’t the 1950s anymore.”

Official numbers on what the county could gain in revenue is unknown, Epperly Karem said, because until a vote passes, the county won’t know how many licenses it can hand out for retail.

But the Chamber predicts it will be significant, based on research in neighboring communities like Danville, Whitehouse said.

Ballot process

The chamber officially notified the county Fiscal Court and Voegele of their intent to lead the law change at the end of July, Epperly Karem said.

The process will start with an “educational phase” starting in August and lasting up to 60 days, Whitehouse said. Then a petition to support putting an expanded sales question on a special election ballot will take up to 60 to 90 days, he said, with a targeted special election date in March 2015.

The exact number of signatures needed is unknown, because it’s based on the last general election. Since Kentucky is holding a general election in November, the special election petition will be based on 25 percent of that to-be-determined figure, Whitehouse said.

The chamber expects to need roughly 4,000 signatures of registered voters in Oldham County, he said. And those signing the petitions must sign their names the same way they do when they go to vote in elections, Whitehouse said.

After the petition is submitted to the county clerk, it will be up to her to set the official special election date, but that’s expected to be in March, based on the chamber’s timeline. Whitehouse said he expects roughly 60 days between the filing of the petition and the actual special election to mount a “get out the vote” campaign.

As for the educational portion, Whitehouse said that could include advertising and possibly forums to get the message out.

“There are several steps to the educational campaign,” he said. “We will do some advertising based on how many dollars we can raise from interested parties who want to see this on the ballot.”

But both he and Epperly Karem were confident they would get the required amount of signatures to place the question on the ballot, as well as enough votes to win the special election.

County leaders

support effort

The measure has the support of many county leaders, who either support the issue proactively or at least the idea of letting county voters decide.

At the top of that list is Voegele, the county judge-executive.

“I’m supportive of the Chamber’s initiative,” he said. “I believe people of the community should have a chance to express their opinion. I can live with whatever the community chooses.”

Crestwood Mayor Dennis Deibel, who’s community could be most effected by a vote to expand sales, also said he’s in favor of the measure.

“I have no objection to it,” he said. “I support it. I think it’s a good thing for the county.”

Deibel said the approval of expanding sales would bring more job opportunities and actual jobs to the county, which is a good thing. He also expressed no issues about a possible rise in crime if the vote passed.

“I don’t think that’s the case in La Grange and I don’t think that will be the case here in the county,” he said.

Several magistrates have also voiced support for the measure, including Magistrate Brent Likins, who represents the 1st District that incorporates Goshen and north Oldham.

“I believe this is an idea whose time has come,” Likins said. “It can not do anything but be a plus. I’m 100 percent proactive. I don’t think I’ve run into one person who doesn’t agree.”

Other magistrates said they personally don’t have an opinion, but believe the ballot issue will succeed.

“I don’t care one way or another,” Magistrate Bob Leslie, who represents Westport and surrounding areas, said. “I think it will go through.”

Leslie said with successful votes in La Grange, for the limited sales in county in 2003 as well as precinct special elections for the country club and Yew Dell, it shows the county is ready to go for a full “wet” vote.

“I think people’s attitudes have changed on the whole subject,” he said.

Email us about this story at editor@oldhamera.com.