Leader Blues

Saturday, November 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Requests for liquor licenses increase

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer

With the exception of a handful of country clubs, selling alcoholic beverages in Lonoke County has been illegal since 1937 but changes made in 2003 to state liquor laws to promote tourism and economic development now allow restaurants open to the public to sell alcohol even in the dry counties, and restaurant owners in Lonoke County are applying for the private club liquor permits they need to do just that.

So far, two restaurants have been approved and two more are applying. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has issued private club liquor permits for Kopan, which opened earlier this year in Cabot serving Korean and Japanese food, and for a restaurant in Ward that has not been built.

Two appeals have been filed in circuit court to stop the Ward restaurant from serving alcohol, but no appeal has been filed against the permit issued to Kopan.

ABC is also reviewing applications from Fat Daddy’s, which opened recently in Cabot, and Deer Creek Grill in Cabot which has not yet been built.

The wet/dry issue was decided in Lonoke County on Dec. 14, 1937, by the majority of 1,160 voters who turned out for the special election. Of that number, 328 voted to continue selling alcohol, and 832 voted to ban it.

By state law, for voters to have a say in the matter today would require a petition containing the verified signatures of 38 percent of the county’s registered voters.

Since Lonoke County has 36,534 registered voters, 13,883 signatures would be needed to get the issue on the ballot in November 2010.

Kopan’s request for a private club liquor license was denied in September by Michael Langley, director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, a state regulatory agency in Little Rock, but that denial was appealed to the ABC board and approved in October.

Langley said in August that if there are objections to a license application, he has no choice except to deny the application and allow all sides to present their cases to the ABC board.

In Cabot, church pastors as well as some city officials objected to the permit being issued.

The ABC granted a private club license to Win Knight on March 31, contingent on the actual construction and approval by the state health department for the restaurant he planned to build in Ward, but opponents appealed to circuit court and the restaurant has not been built.

Knight said recently that he had drunk a beer at Kopan and he was not upset that he was issued the first permit in the county but was not the first to use it.

The Ward City Council opposed Knight’s license application, but the Cabot City Council has not taken an official position.

Some counties like Benton County in the northern part of the state which now has 120 establishments selling alcohol under private club liquor licenses, have taken advantage of the law.

But so far only one restaurant in White County, Kelly’s in Bald Knob, has been granted a license.

The state has issued four private club liquor licenses in Lonoke County, two for clubs in Cabot’s Greystone, one for Rolling Hills Country Club in Cabot and one for Mallard Point in Lonoke.

In White County, in addition to Kelly’s liquor licenses are held by a country club in Searcy, a VFW in Searcy, a VFW in Beebe and the Eagle Lodge in Searcy.

Langley said in deciding whether to grant private club liquor licenses to restaurants, the ABC board hears arguments from those asking for the license and those opposing it.

Each case is decided on its own merits, he said.

Although a private club liquor license entitles the licensee to sell all alcoholic beverages, Langley said some applicants opt to serve only certain drinks like beer and wine possibly because they think doing so could reduce opposition.

However if a license is issued with restrictions, those restrictions must be adhered to, he said.