Letter to the Editor: Citizen addresses alcohol referendums on March 25 ballot

To the Editor:
This is the first in a series of letters in regard to the upcoming election on Saturday March 25th to change the law and increase the distribution of alcoholic beverages in our fair city. To begin, let’s take a look at recent history. Around the turn of the millennium, 1997–2004 in fact,  I was president and CEO of the Ruston-Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. One of the biggest complaints the chamber fielded about our quality of life at that time was that citizens had to drive 30 miles east down I 20 to go to a movie theater.
Studies revealed this caused “leakage” of sales tax revenues to our larger neighbors. In light of these facts the chamber decided to make a concerted effort to attract a movie theater to Ruston. It seemed like a no-brainer, a task I thought it would be easily accomplished. Two universities, stable economy with local industries supporting a strong middle-class with no competition in 30 miles seemed like a slam dunk to make this endeavor a reality. Oh boy! Was I wrong!
I proceeded to call and write several dozen movie theater operators and owners ranging from mom and pop outfits to national and regional chains like Cinemark, AMC and Regal Cinemas. Every time I was able to actually TALK to someone that had the resources to make our dream a reality the conversation was very similar. Things started off great. They asked about the town. I told them about Louisiana Tech, Grambling State, our local economy and the competitive environment. Once I finished my presentation their next question was always, “Tell me about the restaurants you have in Ruston?”.
I reflexively reeled off all the great options we had in Ruston at that time: Log Cabin, The Dawg House, Ponchatoulas, Maxwells, Rabbs steakhouse, Monjuni’s and others. Their next question would be, “What about national chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s?“. When I responded in the negative they would always ask why we did not have those restaurants here. I told them that I had to assume that since they could not serve a glass of wine or cocktail with a meal their margins would not allow their business model to succeed in Ruston.
At that point, the conversation ended. They all told me “thanks, but” until we have those types of restaurants in Ruston they would not consider locating here and it was also highly unlikely that any other movie theater would consider Ruston either. And that is what led to the initiative known as the Restaurant Referendum.
I learned a great deal in this process. I became an expert on certain sections of the Lawrason Act, the code which is set by the Louisiana Legislature and governs how local bodies of government such as our City Council can enact certain ordinances and regulations. Buried in the Lawrason Act is the code which governs the sale of alcohol in communities like Ruston.
The only way to change the local law is for an election to be held by circulating a petition garnering the signatures of 25% of eligible voters and then putting five choices on the ballot allowing citizens to either vote yay or nay on each choice. The five options are:
1.) The sale of low alcohol content beverages by package for off premises consumption – this allows beer sales by grocery and convenience stores, legal in Ruston since the 70’s;
2.)  The sale of low alcohol content beverages for on premises consumption – this allows beer sales by bars with no restaurant permit required, legal in Ruston since the 70’s;
3.)   The sale of high alcohol content beverages for on premises consumption – this would allow wine and mixed drinks to be sold by bars with no restaurant permit, currently illegal in Ruston;
4.) The sale of high alcohol content beverages by package for off premises consumption – this would allow liquor and wine to be sold by liquor stores, grocery and convenience stores, currently illegal in Ruston;
5,) The sale of high alcohol content beverages (wine and mixed drinks) for on premises consumption by restaurants with a type “R” permit, legal in Ruston since the “Restaurant Referendum” was successfully orchestrated by the Chamber of Commerce in 2002.
The chamber worked diligently to keep options 1 & 2 legal and add option 5, as tacitly requested by national chain restaurants (which always precede amenities such as movie theaters choosing a new location). This was a grass roots effort by community leaders and concerned citizens of Ruston (more about that in my next letter – stay tuned).
This election was not called by any government administration. This election was not called by the chamber of commerce or any other community based organization. This election was not called by any group of community leaders or concerned citizens. The petition drive and upcoming campaign to promote passage of these new regulations is funded by 2 large corporations, Wal-Mart and Brookshires Grocery.  Their sole aim is to increase their profit margins with little regard to the potential negative impact and risks to our community. Yes there are many risks, Citizens can, and some will, vote no to all options, which would result in the loss of what was gained by the chamber in 2002 and the other options that have been on the books for 50 years or so, resulting in a local economic disaster.
I wish to compliment our city administration for their efforts to limit the impact of the potential for increased alcohol sales in Ruston. Statutes recently enacted by the Mayor and City Council will prevent the widespread proliferation of liquor bars and liquor stores in Ruston if Wal-Mart and Brookshires have their way with us. For that I am deeply personally grateful for their leadership, and you should be too. I will expound more on that in future letters also – stay tuned.
I will wrap up this first letter with this. GO VOTE ON MARCH 25th OR PARTICIPATE IN EARLY VOTING WHICH BEGINS MARCH 11th. I will definitely vote yes to options 1, 2 and 5, just as I did in 2002. I will definitely vote NO TO OPTION 3. I am not undecided on option 4 but WILL publish my position on that item in a future letter – stay tuned. Above all else, remember, evil triumphs when good men and women do nothing.
Andy Halbrook
Concerned Citizen