By Wally Kennedy
BENTONVILLE, Ark. —
Southwest Missouri residents are watching races in their own state, of course, but two issues on the ballot in Arkansas could have an impact here.
One is a proposed statewide sales tax to fund road construction, and it could initiate work on the long-awaited Bella Vista bypass.
The second could affect Missouri businesses and communities along the state line.
Benton County — a dry county since 1935 — could go wet if voters approve a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would allow retail alcohol sales in the county.
The campaign, which is being backed by two Wal-Mart heirs, could affect McDonald County, Mo., where liquor and convenience stores and a Wal-Mart Supercenter near the state line cater to residents of Northwest Arkansas. Some McDonald County liquor stores receive up to 75 percent of their business from Benton County residents.
What passage of the ballot measure would mean for those businesses is up in the air.
Jo Nell Lawyer, former chairman of the Jane board of trustees and now the clerk of McDonald County village, agrees that the number of Arkansas residents shopping in Missouri is large. But even if Benton County goes wet, she said McDonald County could still prove a temptation for Northwest Arkansas residents because sales taxes will be lower, and for many the Missouri liquor stores still will be closer. She also said the liquor businesses along the state line have built up good “customer loyalty” over the years that she thinks could carry them through.
“I would say it is going to take some revenue, but it isn’t going to be too drastic,” said Lawyer. “I don’t think it is going to be enormous.”
McDonald County Presiding Commissioner Keith Lindquist concurs.
“Since most of the liquor stores are down by the (state) line, I’m sure it will have an effect ... I think without a doubt it will hurt some, but if people get to liking where they are going, I don’t think it will change that much.”
The liquor stores at the state line will still have an advantage in terms of sales tax.
The combined city, county and state sales tax for the retail liquor outlets at the state line is now 6.225 cents. The combined city, county and state tax is 9 percent in Bentonville and 8 percent in Bella Vista. And that could go up by a half-cent if the proposed sales tax for road and highway work is approved by voters next month.
Jane voters in February approved an annexation that would stretch the southern boundaries of the village to the state line, and take in the Wal-Mart Supercenter (the only one in the county), Macadoodles and other liquor stores, as well as an auto dealership.
Sales tax revenue in the village, with a population of 200 to 400 residents, is projected to jump from $6,000 to $7,000 to as much as $2 million annually because of a 1-cent sales tax the village approved in 2007, shortly after it incorporated.
But the annexation is on hold because Wal-Mart is challenging it in court.
“Wal-Mart has objected and they are getting their court time,” Lawyer said. “We are going to court the second day of January.”
Wal-Mart officials declined comment when asked about the retailer’s liquor sales, and about the challenge to the annexation. If the annexation is upheld in court, the combined sales tax for the liquor outlets at the state line would increase by 1 cent to 7.225 cents.
State line liquor retailers say they are not commenting about the vote in Benton County. One liquor-store manager, who asked that his name not be used, said, “We’re staying neutral on this. We’ll let the voters decide.’’
Among those not commenting was Roger Gildehaus, owner of Macadoodles, who told the Globe earlier this year that 75 percent of his business comes from residents in Northwest Arkansas.
The campaign to make Benton County wet is being supported by a group called “Keep Dollars in Benton County.’’ Wal-Mart heirs Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of company founder Sam Walton, have been the largest donors to the campaign. Together, the two have contributed $475,000, according to a report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
The group has raised a total of $525,000 from all sources, including local convenience stores. Through August, the group had spent $517,932. Most of that money was spent with National Ballot Access, a Georgia-based company that was paid to collect enough signatures from voters to place the alcohol question on the ballot.
The company had earlier obtained enough signatures in Boone and Clark counties in Arkansas to have similar measures placed on the ballots in those counties. Voters in those counties passed the measures.
The company submitted 56,635 signatures to the Benton County clerk on July 12 for certification. The county verified the required 41,171 signatures on July 23. There are approximately 108,000 registered voters in the county, which has a population of approximately 220,000.
Marshall Ney, a Rogers lawyer who is leading “Keep Dollars in Benton County,’’ said he is hopeful the issue will pass.
“We feel good about it based on the number of signatures we obtained to put it on the ballot. There appears to be wide support for the measure. If the people who signed the petition turn out at the polls, we should be OK.’’
More than half of the 75 Arkansas counties are dry, meaning they have prohibitions on the sale of alcohol. Benton County is not completely dry. Alcohol can be purchased in 130 of the county’s restaurants. The restaurants sell alcohol under private club permits. Residents have to go across county lines to Carroll County on the east, Washington County to the south, or McDonald County to the north to buy alcohol in a liquor store.
“This is not about access to alcohol,” Ney said. “We already have access to alcohol. It’s the economic impact. It’s about keeping our tax dollars here.’’
Ney cites a study by the Walton School of Business, which the Walton family endowed at the University of Arkansas, that estimated the annual influence of retail alcohol sales in Benton County would be $33 million.
“That’s sales-tax revenue, employment and construction — it’s everything that has to happen for you to see alcohol retail sales,’’ he said.
Ney said all of the liquor sold by restaurants in Benton County is purchased in Washington County.
“That sales tax is being paid there — not in Benton County,’’ he added.
An opposition group, Citizens United to Preserve Benton County, has formed to combat the ballot proposal. The group is organizing support for its cause through local churches.
Sam Gaskill, a McDonald County commissioner, is not sure that will be enough this time. In the past, Gaskill said religious sentiment drove the vote that kept the county dry, but noted that with the changes that have come to the area in recent years, including dramatic population growth, the electorate is different now.
“The old religious effect may not be as strong as it has been in the past,” he said.
But John Gore, chairman of Citizens United to Preserve Benton County, is hoping the faithful will stand firm and oppose the measure.
“We have emailed, mailed and talked to virtually every church — more than 200 — in Benton County,’’ said Gore, likening the challenge ahead for his group to the biblical fight between David and Goliath.
“This is being funded by two of Sam Walton’s grandsons. I personally don’t think Sam would have approved of what they are doing,’’ said Gore. “If we win, God will give us the victory.’’
Gore’s group argues that crime will increase in Benton County, requiring more law enforcement, negating any additional sales tax revenue the county might receive if the proposal is passed. The crime increase would stem from more drunken-driving arrests, alcohol-related fatalities and additional drug use, Gore’s group alleges.
“And, it will hurt us from a social standpoint in terms of lives destroyed and families destroyed by alcohol,’’ he said.
The grass-roots effort is attempting to raise $35,000 for an advertising campaign that features electronic billboards and TV spots.
“We are doing the best we can to get the word out,’’ he said. “We want to keep the alcohol out of convenience stores. We want to keep the bars out of downtown.’’
The last time the alcohol-sales issue was on the ballot in Benton County, Ark., was in 1944, when the population was 38,000. The county now has a population of more than 220,000.