McDonald County liquor retailers brace for competition across line

By John Hacker

Globe Staff Writer

PINEVILLE, Mo. - Deonne Underhill, Bella Vista, and her husband, Todd, said they are new to Bella Vista, Ark., and they only buy alcohol when entertaining friends, but they feel they should have the option of buying package liquor in Benton County.

"I feel Benton County would benefit from the tax revenue," Deonne Underhill said. "The sales tax rate is so high here anyway and maybe this would be a way to lower that rate."

An effort by residents and officials in Benton County, Ark., to allow the sale of package liquor in that rapidly growing county would have been a serious worry for McDonald County officials five years ago, but not now.

"I've been in the McDonald County Courthouse for 20 years, and we've come from being in a condition of near poverty to a better condition," said McDonald County Court Clerk Gene Hall. "Five years ago, we were still struggling to keep a balanced budget and maintain county services. Five years ago, it would have been felt much more severely. It could have been 5 to 10 percent of our revenue, and that would have been a sizable factor."

A group of about 40 Benton County residents is pushing the idea of a ballot initiative to allow voters to decide whether sales of package liquor should be allowed in what is supposed to be a "dry county."

Bill Adams is an elected member of Benton County's Quorum Court, a 10-member body that governs the county similar to a County Commission in Missouri.

Adams is also chairman of Time to Decide Benton County, a group studying the positives and negatives of bringing package liquor sales to a county where those sales have been illegal since 1944.

"Five thousand people voted, and it lost by 50 votes," Adams said. "That was during World War II, and most of the men were gone to war. We just feel it should be revisited."

Adams said his group announced in early April that it had started a petition drive to gather the 38,000 signatures needed to place the decision before Benton County voters, possibly by the November 2006 election.

"Right now, we have about 200 people circulating petitions, and we get two or three more people each day," Adams said. "Each petition has a block for 50 signatures, so we need about a thousand of them."

Adams said Time to Decide Benton County members tried to gather the pros and cons of package liquor sales to give voters the complete picture so they could decide.

As an argument in favor of package liquor sales, Adams said a study showed that the county missed out on $29 million in retail sales and about $1 million in tax revenue in 2003. Adams said those numbers would only grow as the county's population increases.

Adams said the arguments against liquor sales include the social and physical ills that accompany the consumption of alcohol.

"If we were really a dry county, I think the social advantages of continuing to ban alcohol sales in Benton County would be more obvious, but we are a very wet county for a dry county," Adams said. "We have 83 private clubs in Benton County that sell liquor by the drink, which is by far the largest number of private clubs of any county in the state.

"People are going to Washington County and McDonald County to buy liquor, and we're putting our tax dollars in someone else's pocket, and we'd appreciate some of that money back."

Competition potential

The ban on package liquor sales in Benton County, among other things, has led over the years to the creation of a major pocket of retail businesses catering to those looking to buy package liquor along McDonald County's border with Arkansas.

County Clerk Joye Helm agreed with Hall's assessment that the potential impact of Benton County going wet would not be as severe as it could have been if it happened several years ago.

"It will probably impact us some, but now that we've got Wal-Mart down there, it wouldn't be as devastating," Helm said. "I think the businesses on the state line would be impacted the most."

Lisa Fox, a supervisor at Don's State Line Liquor on U.S. Highway 71, north of the Arkansas Line, said the move would hurt, but she's not sure the issue will pass in Benton County.

"They want to relate alcohol to crime for some reason, and I don't think it will pass," Fox said. "If it did, it might hurt some, but we would have our core customers that would still come to us. Besides, the sales taxes are still higher in Arkansas, and Bella Vista people would still come to Missouri to buy."

Gay McClish, owner of Hilltop Liquor, also on U.S. 71, said she's been hearing rumors that Benton County would go wet for years.

"It's always been a possibility; they've been trying to pass this as long as we've owned this place," McClish said. "I think eventually it will go, and we'll have to deal with it. There's not much we can do about it. It's the same as when the Wal-Mart moved in; we had to deal with that and we'll have to deal with the other if it happens. We do still have the lottery though."

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