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Raise a glass? Or no?

Buried amid a host of political races on the ballot this fall is a question with major implications for York County's future.

Voters will be asked to lift a longtime ban on Sunday alcohol sales, a move hailed by supporters as a step toward a more prosperous future -- and decried by opponents as the forsaking of a respected tradition.

In many ways, the debate exposes a deepening divide between old and new York County. The result on Nov. 4 will offer a glimpse into which side wields greater influence at the polls.

Confidence is high among organizers; some even believe the countywide level of support will surpass the 61 percent "yes" vote in Rock Hill in 2006.

That's because, in their view, the flood of more than 20,000 new voters into Fort Mill, Tega Cay and Lake Wylie will offset opposition in the more rural western parts of the county.

"Charlotte is growing toward us and we can't stop it," said David Mathein, co-owner of T-Bones on the Lake in Lake Wylie. "If we're going to be competitive, we've got to be able to offer the same things.

"When they (customers) come across the state line, they don't expect things to change."

Such arguments are anathema to social conservatives who argue York County's respect for religious tradition is what makes it special.

"What the world does doesn't make it right," said pastor Arthur Bankhead of St. Luke Baptist Church No. 1 in the western York County town of Sharon. "You have six days for all of that to be sold. Why make it a big issue trying to pass it on a Sunday?"

A geographic conflict

The divide runs along geographic lines, with support expected in the more urban areas of Rock Hill and northern York County and opposition focused in rural western York County, where residents talk often about preserving a small-town feel. The city of York voted down the issue in a referendum in 2006.

"I talk about this in class all the time -- we're looking at old York County, the rural areas that clearly will be voting no, and the new York County, the panhandle all the way across I-77, that will be overwhelmingly for it," said Rick Whisonant, a political scientist at York Technical College. "Clearly it's shifting toward a newer, more progressive York County."

Sixty-one percent of voters in Rock Hill supported lifting the ban in 2006, which was by a margin wider than even some core supporters expected. They hope the momentum carries over to the countywide campaign.

If it does, restaurants could start selling Sunday drinks by Nov. 23, in time for the final two months of NFL season. The Carolina Panthers play at Atlanta at 1 p.m. that day.

Nowhere is new York County better represented than at Fort Mill's Baxter Village, where shops and restaurants line a faux Main Street near hundreds of newly built townhouses and homes.

"It's 2008. We need to come out of the Dark Ages," said Amy Bovender, co-owner of Baxter's Six Pence Pub. "This law is ... old-school. People come in and they're just absolutely floored."

York County economic boosters have argued for years that customers take their money to Charlotte on what is typically the third-busiest day for restaurants behind Fridays and Saturdays.

They believe ending the ban would drive up food and beverage sales by 12 percent, resulting in $1.5 million in additional revenue. The $3,000-per restaurant alcohol permit fee could pump $75,000 into tax coffers during the first year alone.

To opponents, it's not about the money. They see the referendum as another threat to the dwindling influence of faith traditions on public life. The missions director of the York Baptist Association, Mike O'Dell, cited recent comments by Pope Benedict XVI, who lamented the trend.

"While I often don't agree with the pope, I think he's right on the money with that one," said O'Dell.

"It's obvious there's a growing secularism and lack of spirituality in our society. This vote may indicate that."

A different frustration is voiced by customers who view Sundays from another perspective.

"This one guy told me, 'Yeah, it's Sunday, but it's my other day off also,'" recalled Mathein of T-Bones. "I said, 'Well, we're doing our best.'"

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