Countywide Sunday alcohol sales push kicks off today

After months of behind-the-scenes orchestration, the push to allow Sunday alcohol sales across York County goes public today.

Organizers plan to visit the county elections office this morning to submit a sought-after prize that has proved elusive until now: A collection of at least 7,500 valid signatures needed to get a question on the ballot next November.

Afterward, restaurateurs and business boosters will hold a news conference at the Garden Cafe to explain why they want all of York County to do what Rock Hill did last fall: End a longtime ban on Sunday alcohol sales -- and in turn, keep thousands of customers from going elsewhere to eat and drink on that day.

"We know our signatures are good," said David Mathien, owner of T-Bones On the Lake restaurant. "We went in knowing it was going to take a lot of work. It takes time to do it the correct way. But the people are out there and they want to sign."

To get the signatures, supporters mailed petitions to residents who signed earlier lists in Rock Hill, where the issue passed with 61 percent support from voters. They also made them available at restaurants, businesses and even a recent Main Street Live concert.

State law requires signatures from either 10 percent of registered voters or 7,500 signatures, whichever is the lower figure. The elections office has 60 days to check the validity, said director Wanda Hemphill.

"I think they've tried to be thorough with it," she said. "But we don't know until the actual petition is received."

Overcoming past failures

Similar attempts have been made before. In 2005, a group called Sunday Sales Like Charlotte launched a petition drive in Rock Hill but failed to get enough valid signatures.

This time, supporters hope the momentum from last year's victory in Rock Hill carries over. They believe new voters in Fort Mill and Lake Wylie will outweigh more rural and socially conservative parts of western York County.

At Six Pence Pub in Fort Mill's Baxter Village, servers get funny looks when they tell newcomers drinks aren't allowed on Sundays, said co-owner Amy Bovender, who helped in the petition drive.

"They just can't believe it," she said. "They think it's the most ridiculous thing they've ever heard. I have to explain, well it's (decided) by county in South Carolina."

In Rock Hill, backers convinced the City Council to put a question on the ballot as allowed by state law. The countywide push, however, is using the petition approach.

Organizers don't think they would have the needed votes on the conservative-minded County Council.

Another debate over religion?

As in Rock Hill, the debate over Sunday sales likely will pit religious advocates who believe Sunday should be honored as the Sabbath against newcomers who've traditionally had less conservative views.

Pastor Dave Stanford at First Baptist Church in Clover said Thursday he will encourage his congregation to vote no.

"I would have to oppose anything that makes for moral degradation, and alcohol has proven to do that," said Stanford. "Alcohol has no lasting positive benefit but inevitably leads to degradation."

Supporters say they plan to highlight what's happened in Rock Hill.

At least 17 restaurants and bars have paid for Sunday alcohol permits, resulting in more than $50,000 in revenues for the city. The money is expected to be spent on tourism-related upgrades at places like Cherry Park.

Meanwhile, police department figures have shown no increases in reported crime or drunken driving on Sundays.

Tega Cay and Mecklenburg County, N.C., allow Sunday drink sales. Restaurants have long argued they lose customers on what is typically the third-highest day for revenue behind Fridays and Saturdays.

The countywide petition relates only to drink sales in restaurants and bars. It does not ask for a vote allowing convenience and grocery stores to sell alcoholic beverages on Sundays.