Group Collecting Feedback On Wet Tyler
By CASEY MURPHY
Bob Westbrook believes Tyler is one of the largest cities in Texas to remain dry for the off-premise consumption of alcohol.
Westbrook, former president of Texas Restaurant Association and Tyler CiCi's Pizza franchisee, has met with a group of Tyler residents to discuss whether calling a beer and wine sales initiative would be supported here. As chairman of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce's Governmental Affairs Committee, he has included the issue in the committee's work program, which is helping the group of residents collect data.
"We don't have an action plan," Westbrook said Tuesday, adding that they have not decided whether they will attempt to gather signatures on a petition to call an election.
He said although it is included in his scope of work for the chamber, the group is not seeking an endorsement from the chamber.
Westbrook said the group has not wanted to hide in the shadows but he also didn't want to name any of the group members without their permission.
"Being asked to serve on the Chamber Government Affairs Committee, I thought this was one thing we need to address," he said.
The group is made up of several people who have asked the question of what the potential economic impact such an election could have on Tyler, Westbrook said. There are residents who believe it is time to give the voters an opportunity to decide if it is something they want. But, he said, they want to make sure the data supports or dispels the needs for an election.
"For us not to take a look at this, we wouldn't be good stewards with our responsibility to the chamber and support economic growth," he said Jan. 10. "Likewise, if the data comes back negative, and it would do harm to the community, then why should we come out and support something that is going to harm the community? Rather than have opinion rule the day, we wanted to make sure we had data to help support whatever opinions that are out there.
"Until the data is compiled, all your going to get is opinion, and opinion, everybody's got one."
Members of the group have reportedly approached community leaders about the issue.
Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass and City Manager Mark McDaniel said Tuesday that some city officials have been approached individually by people interested in pursuing a local referendum to allow for retail beer and wine sales.
"The city has no official position on this issue, as we have felt it is a decision for the community to make," McDaniel said in a prepared statement. "We view these briefings as merely informative."
Tom Mullins, president/CEO of the Tyler Chamber and the Tyler Economic Development Council, has said there have been two or three meetings held by the group in about the past six months. But, he said, the discussion has been going on much longer than the group has been meeting.
The chamber has not been asked to support any initiative to bring an election for beer and wine sales to Tyler and has not staffed or led the effort, Mullins said. The chamber has provided its building for the group to meet and has worked with the group to look at the potential impact it could mean for the city.
Westbrook said there are several reasons why the committee tackled the issue. The community is making tough budget decisions with shortfalls in the local, state and federal governments. Beer and wine sales would have the prospect of generating additional tax revenue, which would ease a lot of pains, and would provide opportunities for the community to spend the additional money on things that could help with residents' quality of life and for activities in the city, he said. It also could help with employment, creating more jobs in the grocery and convenience stores sector, he added.
The Tyler group started meeting because of the recent passages of alcohol elections in all of the communities around the area. He gave Winona as an example of a city that has changed since passing alcohol sales about 18 months ago.
The once struggling community now is reporting a sales tax revenue increase, has bought new police cars and has seen some relief on its tax burden on residents. He said the same is true for cities such as Jacksonville, Athens and Henderson, as well as others who have recently passed alcohol initiatives.
"We've got lots of work to do," he said of the Tyler group. "If the data comes back in support of, then it's possible you'll see a wet/dry election for off-premise consumption. If the data comes back negatively, then I am sure that you won't."
The talks are about beer and wine sales in convenience stores and grocery stores only; bringing in liquor stores is not part of the discussion, Mullins said.
Wine for off-premise consumption already has been sold by Kiepersol in Tyler for years.
The local group is still collecting data, including surveys on the feasibility of such an election, and has contracted Economist Dr. Ray Perryman to conduct a study on the economic impact beer and wine sales would have in the city. He said they also are collecting safety data and have received compelling figures from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers about cities that have seen drops in driving while intoxicated, fatalities and other incidents where alcohol initiatives have been passed by voters.
When residents have to drive to the county line to buy alcohol, some people have a tendency to have a cocktail while making the run, he said. "So there's a safety factor here," he said.
He said they also will probably meet with the police chief and sheriff to collect safety data, as well as get information from other Texas cities of similar size to Tyler.
Westbrook said the surveys, such as the Perryman report, all will be discussed in public with the Governmental Affairs Committee.
Mullins said no money has been raised for any initiative. He said the group, made up of what he called community people who have been talking about a possible election for years, may make a decision by this spring, as early as March or April, but there is no set timeline.
The business people and local professionals have been discussing the issue behind the scenes so Mullins did not want to disclose their names. The group that has been meeting in the last several months has involved about seven to 10 people, he said.
People who have strong personal opinions for either side of such an election could change their opinions after the data is collected, Westbrook said.
"If the data comes back negative, I'm sure they're not going to want to step out in support of," he said. "Likewise, if the adverse is true, then I figure that you'll probably see support from those naysayers."
As president of the East Texas Restaurant Association at the time, Westbrook headed the "liquor by the drink" initiative that resulted in an election that removed the requirement of having to have a private membership to bars and restaurants in Tyler.
He said it was a great relief for businesses because it removed an antiquated system and removed the burden from restaurants, in the form of paperwork, time and cost savings. It also allowed the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to concentrate on education and enforcement instead of on whether businesses were keeping the paperwork just right.