Liquor by the drink before voters in Chatham County

Chatham County holds the referendum Tuesday, though 1,500 have already voted.

Staff WriterMay 4, 2009 

— In Chatham County, where newcomers and old-timers like to toast the past as they plot the future, a debate has played out about one recent thirst for change.

Voters will decide Tuesday whether Chatham will allow the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants and bars.

The issue has pulled citizens out in droves even before the polls open at 6:30 a.m. for the special countywide referendum. With early, one-stop voting an option, nearly 1,500 ballots were cast by the weekend.

For many decades, Chatham stood its rural ground and eschewed the more urban ways of its Triangle and Triad neighbors.

But now that golf course communities, retirement villages and new suburban neighborhoods have cropped up on old farm land, some think Chatham has become fertile ground for the kinds of upscale restaurants and high-end hotels that won't give a place a second look unless it can serve up an old-fashioned, a margarita or other mixed drinks.

With change, supporters of liquor-by-the-drink foresee economic development for the county, along with increased tax revenues.

"We're leaking money to other counties," said Randy Voller, the Pittsboro mayor and a vocal advocate for liquor by the drink sales. "When you can't order a margarita or mixed drink at a local restaurant, there's this kind of thing that says 'We're still back in yesteryear.' Does that make sense?"

Opponents worry that such a measure will lead the county down the road to ruin where alcohol-fueled crimes and strip clubs flourish.

Just a few days ago, someone played on those sentiments and posted a hoax on a Chatham Web message board. Borrowing character names from "The Sopranos," the popular cable mobster drama, the author made a spoof announcement about a gentlemen's club with ties to New Jersey moving to Chatham County.

Some were amused.

Others were not.

Many of the same longtime Chatham residents who have resisted new growth controls and advocated for little regulation of chain-store and big-box business development are using arguments once used against them in their campaigns against liquor-by-the-drink. Allowing mixed drinks on restaurant menus, opponents have argued, could bring in the restaurant and bar chains that slow-growthers have shunned.

"They come here because they like the slower way of life," said Steve Moore, pastor of Emmaus Baptist Church, one of the more vocal critics of the measure. "Then once they're here, they want to make it like what they left behind."

What is allowed

In Chatham, restaurants with permits can serve beer and wine. Liquor is sold by the bottle at ABC stores.

Special legislation allows the Fearrington Village community, just north of Pittsboro, to serve cocktails, as can some of the private country clubs.

But you can't order a margarita at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Pittsboro, Voller points out, giving some reason to drive to Durham, Apex, Chapel Hill or another neighboring community.

Chapel Hill was one of the first places in the state to serve up mixed cocktails. It was 1977, shortly after the state put such decisions into the hands of its 100 counties and their municipalities.

Over the years, counties have adopted liquor rules in various forms.

"Because we're a local option state, it's a mixed bag," said Michael Herring, administrator of the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

The last time liquor-by-the-drink was put to a vote in Chatham was in a Pittsboro-only referendum in 1997. It was defeated by 13 votes.

The county has changed much since then as Chatham became the frontier for growth spilling over from Wake, Orange and Durham counties. A population with ties to Research Triangle Park and the nearby universities set up house.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8741

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