Taps for dry Sundays? Tourism, special events would stand to benefit from one more day of beer
by Tim Lockette
Thirty-four draft beers are on tap at Heroes Grille near Weaver. With the passage of a recent bill Heroes and another business could be annexed into Weaver allowing them to sell alcohol on Sundays.  (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
A week from today, bars and restaurants across the country will fill with football fans who just can’t enjoy the Super Bowl without the roar of a crowd.

But at Dave Mogil’s restaurant on Noble Street, the doors will be shut — unless somebody organizes a private event.

“I’d like to have a big party, with wings and beer and steak and fish,” said Mogil, owner of Damn Yankees. “I’d make a lot of money.”

Mogil has wings, and steak and fish. It’s the beer that’s the problem. In Anniston, as in much of the state, alcohol sales are banned on Sundays. Mogil, who serves drinks the rest of the week, says that without a chance to sell beer, he can’t afford to open on Sunday.

He could get that chance soon. State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is planning to file a bill that would give the Anniston City Council the choice of legalizing Sunday alcohol sales. Supporters of the measure — called the Anniston Ecotourism Beverage Bill — say it would help the city bring in more visitors to events like the Woodstock 5K and the Sunny King Criterium bike race.

“Most people like to have a beer after a race,” said Patrick Wigley, owner of Wig’s Wheels, a bicycle shop on Noble Street. “If people can have one with their meal, they’re less likely to split on Sunday afternoon.”

Opponents worry that Sunday sales would lead to an increase in the amount of drinking, and the social problems that go along with it.

Trickling down

The Model City’s ban on Sunday alcohol sales has a long history. Two, actually.

After Prohibition ended following the passage of the 21st Amendment in December 1933 — voters in both Anniston and Calhoun County had approved repeal in July of that year — states and local governments retained the option to keep out alcohol.

Alabama is still making up its mind. Twenty-five of the state’s 67 counties ban alcohol sales altogether, according to the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. But 24 of those counties contain cities where alcohol is legal. Drive straight across the state and you’ll drift into and out of the Prohibition era, seemingly at random.

But not on Sunday. For years, outside the state’s biggest cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville, it was hard to find a beer on the Sabbath.

That’s because of the state’s long tradition of “blue laws” — local restrictions, now mostly abandoned or ignored, that once forced businesses to close on Sundays.

For politicians, the combination of booze and the Sabbath is still potentially explosive.

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, when The Star asked her about the bill. Boyd said she supported giving city leaders a choice in the matter.

“I’m for it as long as there are no sales during worship-service hours,” she said.

That’s been the rule in the state’s larger cities, where beer and wine can usually be purchased in the afternoons and evenings on Sunday.

However, that approach seems now to be trickling down to medium-sized and small cities. Tuscaloosa passed a Sunday-sales ordinance in 2011, and neighboring Northport followed suit the same year. Last year, Selma and the small Sumter County town of York legalized Sunday sales as well.

Officials at the Alabama League of Municipalities say they can’t tell whether it’s a trend. The mishmash of alcohol laws is so complicated, the changes are too hard to track.

Beer or baseball?

From Montgomery’s Tallapoosa Street, Sunday alcohol looks like a complete success.

Much of the capital city’s downtown is dead on weekends, typical of a Deep South city center. But near the city’s riverfront is the Montgomery Biscuits’ minor-league baseball stadium. On Sunday afternoons, the ballpark disgorges hundreds of fans who fill the pubs and restaurants across the street. Even on non-game Sundays, people stop by at Dreamland Barbecue or the Alley Bar, where beer — including Gadsden-made Truck Stop Honey — is on tap.

Getting the Biscuits would have been a lot harder without Sunday sales, said Dawn Hathcock, vice president of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Visitors and Convention Bureau.

“It really helps to be able to serve beer at those Sunday games,” she said. Attempts to reach Biscuits officials for comment were unsuccessful.

When officials try to assess the economic impact of Sunday sales, it’s hard to tell where the beer effect begins and the baseball effect ends.

Officials in Birmingham and Mobile, where Sunday sales have long been legal, said they didn’t have any way to sort out the effect of Sunday sales on city revenue. Tuscaloosa city revenue director Linda McKinney said she was confident the city’s new Sunday-sales policy has helped a little, though the effect was hard to measure.

“We’re more affected by the number of home games than by Sunday sales,” she said, referring to the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide.

Chipping away

Sid Nichols says the social cost of drinking gets lost in the talk of Sunday sales. People don’t consider the effect of additional drunk drivers on the road and other social problems, he said.

But for Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun Baptist Association, it isn’t really about the money.

“They’ve got all the right arguments, according to what the world thinks,” Nichols said. “But how much of the Lord’s day are we going to chip away?”

Nichols said he has written to Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, in opposition to Sunday sales, and is beginning to organize churches in the effort.

Hurst, a member of Calhoun County’s delegation, said he hasn’t read the bill yet and hasn’t made up his mind. But he said he was skeptical of calls for Sunday sales.

“It’s already pretty easy to get alcohol,” he noted.

Studies suggest Sunday sales don’t lead to an increase in drunk driving, said Mark Stehr, an economist at Pennsylvania’s Drexel University who studies blue laws. They don’t lead to a bonanza of wealth, either.

“The increase in sales is usually around 2 to 3 percent,” Stehr said.

Stehr said the laws in neighboring areas would shape the impact of Sunday sales. When small states like Delaware and Rhode Island legalized Sunday sales, he said, they saw big boosts in sales, because neighboring states didn’t have Sunday sales.

“Delaware’s sales went up 7 percent,” he said. “That’s a bigger change than you’d see from the Delaware population alone.”

Anniston could see a similar effect, on a different scale, he said. No surrounding cities have Sunday sales.

Stehr said most of the Delaware sales were in stores, not bars, which is why drunk driving didn’t increase.

“Generally, people don’t drive to another city to get drunk in a bar,” he said.

To the average resident, however, Anniston’s nearest neighbor doesn’t always feel like a separate city. Anniston stands cheek-to-cheek with Oxford, a town of similar size. Stehr said he didn’t know how Sunday sales would play out in a wet Sunday city so close to a dry Sunday city.

‘What the people want’

Sam Sutchaleo’s restaurant has a bar, he said, but he’s quick to point out that his place isn’t a bar.

Sutchaleo owns Thai One On, an Asian restaurant on Noble Street. He closes on Sunday, he said, because business is slow. With Sunday sales, he predicts, he’d be able to draw enough of a crowd to open.

“It would be good for us,” he said.

Wigley, of Wig’s Wheels, said he doesn’t expect Sunday sales to turn Noble Street into a bar district. In the past, he said, locals have pushed back against some efforts to open more bars.

“Even if it did become an entertainment district, maybe that’s not so bad,” he said. “We’ve tried a lot of other things.”

Mogil, of Damn Yankees, said he didn’t expect to draw big crowds from Oxford looking just for drinks. He says people just want the same meal they’d get on any other day of the week.

“It’s disrespecting the community,” he said of the Sunday sales ban. “When people come here from out of town and hear that they can’t have a beer because it’s Sunday, they think this is the most backward place.”

Still, it isn’t out-of-towners who will sway legislators on the issue. Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said he hasn’t made up his mind on the issue yet, largely because he hasn’t seen the bill. But he said he’s asking people around town to see how they feel about it.

“I like to do what the people want,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
© 2013