The battle to turn Arkansas’s dry counties wet with Walmart’s help

Many Arkansas counties are forbidden from selling alcohol, but campaigners, including the Walton family, want that to change

Warwick Milner sits outside Cove Creek Corner Store, a gas station in Cleburne county, Arkansas. Despite a nearby lake attracting tourists from neighboring states, the gas station cannot sell alcohol. In fact, there is no place within the entire county where wine, beer or liquor can be purchased and taken home.

Last year Milner tried to change that, collecting enough signatures to put a petition on the 2018 ballot. He solicited the help of local businesses including the owner of the gas station knocked on residents doors and started a Facebook group. Thousands joined in support, and movers and shakers reached out to him, including a former mayor and council members.

Im the most conservative person that can be. Except in this county Im a progressive, said Milner, who identifies as Mormon and doesnt drink.

Milner is joining a growing wave of Arkansans working to overturn 80-year-plus bans on selling alcohol within some counties. Up until a few years ago, more than half of Arkansas 75 counties remained dry, a result of strong anti-alcohol sentiment reaching back to the 1800s and the end of prohibition in the 1930s.

While the south boasts the largest number, dry communities still exist throughout the US. Massachusetts, for example, has a handful of dry towns.

At least in Arkansas, the wet-dry issue doesnt fall along political lines. The pro-dry camp has for years consisted of a collaboration between conservative churches vocal about the harmful effects of alcohol and county-line liquor stores in wet counties who worry about lost profits.

Over the years, rules have been relaxed to allow some restaurants and clubs to sell alcohol to customers with a membership, creating damp or moist counties.

There are a lot of people who consider it a matter of local control that counties get to decide for themselves, said Brian Richardson, chief strategist for Complete Campaign Services, which has handled many wet-dry campaigns. Even in the driest counties, alcohol is readily available by the drink in restaurants, and that is a major reason why so many counties have retained their dry retail status.

Another reason counties have been slow to change is because the obstacles are high. While most other issue initiatives in Arkansas require 10% of signatures from those who voted in the last general election to get on the ballot, the wet-dry issue requires 38% of signatures from all registered voters.

Its very, very difficult to do. Everything is stacked against alcohol, said Linda Bowlin, a lawyer who used to head a pro-wet committee in Randolph county.

Pro-wet organizers interviewed for this article attribute a lot of the statewide movement to pure gumption, but also to Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Helen and Sam Walton who founded Walmart, the retail giant that has its headquarters in Arkansas.

In the run-up to the 2012 general election, the Waltons spearheaded a Keep Dollars in Benton county campaign. Together, they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward getting the necessary signatures for the pro-wet initiative to appear on the ballot. It succeeded, and the county became wet. Since then, more than 10 counties have followed.

That kind of gave people the encouragement that it could be done, Bowlin said.

Like Milner, who estimates that Cleburne county misses out on at least $6m worth of revenue each year it stays dry, Bowlin is tired of seeing money cross into neighboring counties and border states.

Its not just that were losing tax money. Were losing an awful lot amount of money thats swirling around in other states and other counties. Thats hopefully gonna swirl around here now, Bowlin said.

Theyre not the only ones concerned with revenue. After the success of Benton countys flip, Walmart commissioned studies through the University of Arkansas Sam Walton Business School to evaluate potential sales should a county go wet. In the case of Little River county, for example, a study determined that more than $2m worth of sales per year could be collected.

At the same time, according to courthouse records, Walmart threw millions of dollars at select county-wide initiatives in the 2014 and 2016 cycles. In some cases, Walmart was the first donor listed when a pro-wet campaign registered at the courthouse.

All of the Walmart-backed county initiatives that made it to the ballot were passed the following November.

But before the 2018 election, Walmart stepped aside allegedly agreeing not to get involved in wet-dry local option elections for eight years, in exchange for the ability to expand its wine selection. Despite objections from smaller liquor stores worried about competition, the company is no longer limited to only selling Arkansas and out-of-state small-batch wine.

But even without substantial financial backing, pro-wet campaigns continue to go forward.

The attitudes were not what we thought they were, Bowlin said. The old people who grew up here were as eager to sign as any young person who drives to Jonesboro for a mixed drink.

Milner, who failed last time to get his pro-wet initiative on the ballot, said he plans to budget in more months in 2020 to collect the requisite signatures.

David Couch, a Little Rock lawyer who once launched an unsuccessful campaign to turn the whole state wet, said it is eminently doable to turn smaller and mid-sized counties, like Cleburne, wet without big donations. But larger counties are harder.

If youre gonna wet-up a big county in Arkansas right now, unless you have the Walton family behind you, or something like that. Its just not going to happen, said Couch.

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