Supporters of countywide Sunday alcohol sales predict a landslide victory when the question of whether York County bars and restaurants should be allowed to sell booze on the Sabbath is presented to voters next fall.
A petition to hold a referendum on the issue, circulated by local bar owners and restaurateurs, has been certified by the York County Elections Commission, supporters announced Wednesday, clearing the way for the question to appear on the November 2008 general election ballot.
Chet Miller, one of the petition organizers, said strong turnout expected in November's presidential election will mean heavy support for Sunday sales. He expects the northern parts of the county -- where businesses directly compete with Charlotte eateries selling alcohol on Sundays and where an influx of newcomers has resulted in a more diverse population -- to carry the vote.
"Rock Hill passed its referendum last year with a 61 percent margin," Miller said, referring to the citywide referendum on Sunday sales that passed last fall. "The votes from northern York County, I think, will give us even more support."
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The referendum only applies to the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants. Beer, wine and liquor would still be off limits in grocery and convenience stores. In addition to Rock Hill, Sunday sales already are permitted in Tega Cay, where the practice has been legal since the city was founded.
Sunday alcohol sales in York County -- hailed as economic progress by supporters and chastised for diluting the Sabbath by opponents -- has traveled a rocky road in recent years. In 2005, a Rock Hill petition failed to collect enough signatures for a question to reach the ballot. A spring 2006 referendum in the city of York was rejected during a citywide election. But the tide changed last summer when the Rock Hill City Council added the question to its ballot, and voters approved the measure in the fall.
If approved in November, the countywide referendum would supersede York voters' 2006 decision to keep the Sunday ban intact.
Wanda Hemphill, director of the county elections commission, said the most recent petition is the most organized drive she's seen. While the minimum number of signatures required to put a question on the ballot is 7,500, she said 9,012 were validated this week. Organizers said 6,000 additional legitimate names weren't even submitted.
Hemphill expects voter turnout to exceed 70 percent in November when voters head to the polls to elect a president.
"That will provide a strong cross-section of voters," she said. "Either way, there should be a lot of confidence in the voters' decision."
Fort Mill, Lake Wylie factors
The campaign for Sunday sales will concentrate in northern York County, supporters say, where restaurants and bars claim to lose business to competitors.
"It's so easy to access Rock Hill, Tega Cay or to go into Mecklenburg County," said Dan Holmes, owner of Fort Mill's Towne Tavern on S.C. 160, noting he's surrounded by communities that allow alcohol on Sundays. "We're in a funny spot here.
"There's a huge difference this time. When I opened several years ago, there was only three or four other restaurants in the area. Now, there's 12 to 15," Holmes said, adding he thinks the growth will influence votes. "Times have changed."
At Lake Wylie's T-Bones On the Lake, owner David Mathien said holding the referendum will be welcomed by boaters and lakegoers who often are disappointed they can't buy alcohol on Sunday.
"Our customers have asked for this for a long time," he said. "For our restaurant, (Sunday sales) will be tremendous because we're in a recreational atmosphere where people expect to get out and relax. And they expect to have their choice in how they enjoy themselves."
Churchgoers urged to oppose
But opposition from conservative voters is expected. Groups against Sunday sales often contend a seventh day for bars to do business could increase the number of drunken drivers on highways and detract from local worshippers' observance of the Sabbath.
When York and Rock Hill voted on the question last year, some area ministers spoke against Sunday alcohol sales. But Mike O'Dell, director of the York Baptist Association, said his organization isn't yet prepared to take an official stand this time.
"I feel very confident the individual pastors of our association will encourage their members to vote against it," he said. "Everyone has their own reasons, but personally, I don't think it will add to our quality of life in York County."