Only two members of the public spoke during discussions Monday on a proposed alcohol referendum being considered by Johnston County Commissioners.
In March, two Benson-area business owners asked the Board to consider a countywide alcohol sales referendum this Fall. Jeremy Norris, the owner of Broadslab Distillery, and Jason Ashworth, owner of Mac’s General Merchandise, asked Commissioners on March 7th to place a referendum on the November 2016 ballot to allow residents to decide on beer and wine sales in unincorporated areas.
On Monday, Rev. Mark Creech, representing the Christian Action League of North Carolina spoke in opposition to the referendum. Rev. Creech said there are serious harms caused by alcohol including health and public safety issues. Twenty-eight percent of all traffic fatalities in NC are tied to alcohol, he told commissioners. Rev. Creech said the proposal to provide greater alcohol density in unincorporated areas would cause serious harm. “There is more to be considered than a business’s bottom line.”
Currently only the Cleveland and Wilders Townships allow stores to sell beer and wine. Some convenience stores in other townships can also sell beer and wine if they have an attached restaurant with 30 percent of their sales in food.
However, the majority of businesses, like Mac’s General Merchandise, a full-line grocery store on Highway 242 South of Benson, don’t operate a restaurant. Ashworth said people are bypassing his business to drive 6 miles into Benson to buy their groceries at stores that sell beer. Ashworth said he has seen the trend increase over the last 10 to 15 years and he is losing sales. He said being able to sell beer would be a benefit to him and his customers.
Rev. Dr. Wendy Ella May from the Micro community, and a candidate for Johnston County Commissioner this November, said Monday she has been an activist for equality for 30 years. She said businesses in unincorporated areas are presently unable to sell beer like stores in town limits. She said all businesses should be able to compete on equal terms.
Johnston County Attorney Jennifer J. Slusser said the County would need to make a decision on an alcohol referendum no later than June or July to give the Board of Elections enough time to place the issue on the ballot.
Commissioner Ted Godwin of Selma asked his fellow board members, “Is calling for a referendum seen as pro-alcohol and not calling it seen as against?” He asked for more time to hear from those involved before voting.
Chairman Tony Braswell of Pine Level said if this issue is put before voters, the Board would not lobby for or against the measure.
Commissioner Allen Mims of Clayton says he has heard more discussion from individuals wanting it approved than frombusinesses. “I’m all for letting them vote on it.”
Commissioner Chad Stewart of Four Oaks said it was about being fair. “Why should one store be able to sell and one store can’t?”
“As a Christian and citizen I am against it,” Commissioner Godwin replied. “As a Christian I am for it,” Stewart answered.
“As an Episcopalian I’ve had some in church,” Commissioner Mims added, bringing a chuckle from the audience.
Responding to a question from Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour, Slusser said the outcome of the referendum, if called for, would not affect alcohol sales in city limits, only unincorporated areas.
At the urging of Commissioner Godwin, the board voted unanimously to table making a decision on the referendum until May, at which time it likely to be approved.
Alcohol Sales Rejected In 1997
If commissioners allow an alcohol sales referendum to be placed on the November ballot, it would not be the first time Johnston County residents have voted on the measure.
On May 6, 1997 voters narrowly approved a mixed beverage referendum, 6175 to 6074, while rejecting a malt beverage referendum 6165 to 6080.
The Town of Archer Lodge will have a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to allow alcohol sales in their city limits.