Council vote puts Columbia closer to Sunday alcohol sales

COLUMBIA -- It was a small item at the end of the agenda, and by the time City Council got to it, almost everyone had left including the mayor and two council members.

But with a 4-0 vote, city residents came one step closer to having a referendum on Sunday retail beer and wine sales, a concept that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago.

And if recent history is repeated, once the question makes the ballot, voters won't blink an eye.

Fifteen cities and four counties already offer Sunday beer and wine sales. Lexington and Richland counties do not, unless you have a special permit.

Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said voters tend to vote yes once the referendum makes the ballot. He noted Rock Hill's election last year, when 61 percent of voters cast an approving vote.

Wednesday's vote was a preliminary approval. Council members will vote a second and final time at their next meeting Dec. 12. If it passes -- and from all indications it will -- city voters will go to the polls during council elections in April to decide.

Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine said council members won't hold a public hearing on the issue because the referendum is the public hearing.

"We'll let the voters decide," she said after Wednesday's meeting.

Little opposition

The issue has had little organized opposition thus far, including among church leaders, although it's still early in the process. City Council decided to let residents vote on the issue after a lawyer for a group of local retailers asked them to.

If the referendum is successful, Columbia convenience and grocery stores could sell beer and wine on Sundays. It would not apply to liquor. Columbia would be the first city in the Midlands to allow Sunday retail sales.

And it's been a long time coming, said former Mayor Patton Adams. As the area's blue laws gradually disappeared over the past 20 years, he said, residents gradually have lowered their guard against Sunday beer and wine sales.

"Before the change in blue laws, I don't think anything like this would have even been contemplated," he said. "That has led to people having a different attitude about buying and selling merchandise on Sunday."

It could mean a boost for local retailers. Terry Lehman, chief operating officer for Li'L Cricket, said his convenience stores have seen an increase in sales as cities and counties have changed their laws.

"It's just a sign of the times and a change that is probably long overdue," said Lehman, who operates 90 stores statewide, including 10 in the Columbia area.

Greenville residents recently voted to allow Sunday beer and wine sales. But Donna Rodgers, Budweiser's vice president for special events and media, said it's too early to tell how much of an impact that would have on their business.