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November 3, 2010

Cullman goes wet

Legal alcohol sales approved by 234 votes

CULLMAN — Change is brewing in the City of Cullman.

City voters approved the legal sale of alcohol in a wet/dry referendum Tuesday night by a margin of approximately 52 percent to 48 percent. A total of 3,155 votes were cast in favor of legal sales, while 2,921 opposed the change; sales passed by 234 votes.

Voter turnout was down from the last wet/dry election, with 6,076 total voters Tuesday — compared to approximately 7,100 in the last referendum in 2004.

Mary Adams, spokesperson for the pro-alcohol sales group Coalition for a Better Cullman, said the vote shows local residents are finally uniting to move the city forward.

“We’re very thankful for the voters who voted for the economic development of the City of Cullman,” she said. “This is wonderful.”

Legal sales advocate and local business owner Rob Werner said he believes the change should be a good one for the local business climate.

“I think the people spoke, most definitely,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great thing for the community.”

The potential economic benefits of legal sales have been a driving force in the lead-up to the wet/dry vote, as two major retail development firms publicly expressed interest in working in the city over the past few months — and both noted legal sales could mean larger projects.

Tuesday marked the first time since 2004 that the issue had been on the ballot in Cullman. In that year, sales were voted down by 54 percent and 573 votes.

Wet/dry referendums have previously been held in 2004, 2002, 1992, 1990, 1986 and 1984. The closest vote in recent history came in 1984, when alcohol sales were voted down by only 159 votes.

Citizens awaiting the results at city hall faced a lengthy wait Tuesday, as the final ballot box took nearly two hours to arrive and provide official totals. As the final tally was announced, Cullman Mayor Max Townson said the results were somewhat unexpected, considering Cullman’s long history of voting down legal sales.

“To be honest, I’m a little surprised,” he said. “As someone inside [city hall] said, I think it could have a lot to do with the economy now ... Naturally, when something like this comes up there is always two sides. It’s our job to give the people a chance to vote, and the people have spoken.”

City officials estimate approximately six months until sales can begin, and Townson said the council will begin work soon on an alcohol ordinance.

“I want to assure the people that we will have the strictest of ordinances,” he said.

Council president Garlan Gudger Jr. echoed those sentiments and agreed there is a lot of work to be done in the interim.

“The council will start working immediately with the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) board on what is best for the city and the citizens,” he said. “I’d like to ask people not to start bombarding city hall with questions, because we don’t have the answers, yet. It will take us a minimum of two months, and once we do know, there will be a public meeting. Until then, we have to put our nose to the grindstone and facilitate what the people want.”

Local pastor Ken Allen, an outspoken opponent of legal sales in Cullman, said he was deeply saddened with the results of the vote.

“Certainly we’re disappointed, and I think the people who have lived in Cullman all their lives don’t really know what they’re giving up,” he said. “There’s the old saying that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I know what it’s like to live in places like Birmingham, because I grew up there. I know what it’s like to have someone knock on your door after a husband has beat them.”

Allen also questioned the economic benefits that have been touted by pro-wet advocates.

“I believe there was a lot of bait put forth, and a lot of people took the bait,” he said. “I want to know who is going to hold folks accountable now for the 900 jobs that were promised, and who’s going to be the one counting to make sure we get those? Who is going to hold folks responsible for this development that is forthcoming, and the restaurants, and I wonder about the truth in all of this.”

Steve Cummings, who chaired the pro-dry ad hoc committee, said he believes his group ran a clean campaign and has no hard feelings toward advocates for legal sales.

“Hopefully we didn’t hurt anybody’s feelings, and politics are a lot like sports — you compete hard, but after the game you try to go out there and shake hands,” he said. “We’re all still a part of the same community and the same team. We tried to get our side out there with information, but I think everyone on both sides was just doing what they believe would be best for the community.”

Cullman is the third municipality in Cullman County to hold a wet/dry referendum this year — but the first to approve sales — following Hanceville and Good Hope. Hanceville residents voted sales down by 28 votes in March, and the town of Good Hope stayed “dry” by a 61-vote margin.

‰ Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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