T.J. Rickard, 29, has sold six-packs to and carted cases of wine for customers there for more than eight years. He knows many customers by name, even more by face.
Rickard said many customers make the package-store pilgrimage from Tyler each week. Especially on weekends, traffic fills the southbound and northbound lanes of Texas Highway 155 as customers visit and leave the three-store strip just across the county line where alcohol is sold.
But in nine days, when voters decide two propositions to legalize beer and wine sales in Tyler and Justice of the Peace Precinct 2, they may also weigh in on Coffee City's future.
Alcohol proponents in Tyler and Precinct 2 point to how beer and wine sales will benefit local businesses and public tax revenues. However, dollars spent in Coffee City might dry up if the two Smith County jurisdictions go wet.
Tyler has a large population. Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 has population and proximity. It includes unincorporated areas south and west of Tyler, including Noonday, Flint and Bullard. It also extends to Lake Palestine and the Smith County line.
Coffee City Mayor Tony Moore agrees tax revenues will take a hit but does not expect beer and wine sales in Tyler to break the town.
“It's going to hurt. I would be lying if I said otherwise, but it won't dry us up,” he said.
Moore said tax revenue calculations showed a 2-4 percent drop after towns such as Jacksonville and Troup began selling beer, wine and liquor. The city received $337,335 in sales tax revenue last year, according to state comptroller data.
But because the threat from Tyler and Precinct 2 includes beer and wine only, Moore said, liquor will still draw “true drinkers.”
Moore said he would much rather see Tyler go wet rather than Precinct 2 or both because the precinct neighbors his town and would steal customers on Lake Palestine.
Coffee City councilman Lee Farris said the collective hope among city officials and business owners is that beer and wine sales are rejected by voters.
“Hopefully there will be enough Bible Belt folks go to the polls,” he said.
In April, Green Acres Baptist Church pastor David Dykes, responded to a request for comment by saying he could not support legalization.
“While I realize that some Christians can and do drink responsibly, I cannot give my support to any effort that would increase the availability of alcohol in Tyler,” he said by email. “To me, it is not an economic issue as much as it is a moral and spiritual one. As a pastor, I have too often seen the devastation that alcoholism causes in families, and I've ministered to families dealing with the effects of underage drinking. I understand that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and I'm praying it will not become one that divides our community.”
There have been few negative public statements made by other community leaders regarding alcohol.
Buy Local First, the pro-alcohol group that circulated the petitions, has raised $238,460 since it formed in April, according to campaign finance reports.
Three donors gave $235,000 to the campaign. Brookshire's donated $150,000. Wal-Mart donated $80,000. Tyler Southpark Center, which is on Loop 323 frontage in front of the former Albertson's location according to the Smith County Appraisal District, donated $5,000.
Winona, Troup, Alba, Jacksonville, Athens, Henderson, Rusk and Mineola voted in recent years to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption.
Residents from Smith County's Justice of the Peace Precinct 4, Arp, Bullard, Whitehouse, Lindale, Brownsboro, Murchison and Hawkins rejected similar measures.
Both Moore and Farris said they were surprised by how quiet opposition against the elections has been. They said they are in “wait and see mode” and are uncertain how much any change will affect the city.
Farris believes the town of more than 1,200 has enough going for it to avoid becoming a ghost town.
“The stream of traffic down 155 is too big,” he said. “We're still on a main corridor, and there's lakefront property,” Farris said.
Coffee City economic development officials are working to broaden the city's tax revenue base, which is heavily dependent on alcohol.
Farris said loss of commercial appeal for package stores may open the door for more opportunities.
If land values drop, it could make development along Highway 155 more appealing for other businesses, such as hotels, Farris said.
“I don't think people associate land values dropping with good, but it could make the town more enticing for development,” he said.
But Ms. Menne said her “mom and pop” store is in a strong competitive position to outlast a “corporate” store such as Fat Dog's. Beer sales may suffer she said, but liquor draws customers and is the money-maker for Big Foot.
“People will still want their liquor. While they're here they may want to pick up some beer, some cigarettes and beer salts,” she said. “This is a one stop shop.”
A liquor seller, who asked not to be identified because he deals with businesses in affected areas, with more than 40 years in the business and who serves Coffee City, Big Sandy, Winona and Kilgore, said legalization in Tyler and Precinct 2 is bound to have a marked negative effect on Coffee City. He's seen what recent alcohol elections in other towns, including Winona, have done to businesses in surrounding towns.
“It's the biggest city and the biggest precinct,” he said. “That's at least 150 new accounts and every corner will have beer and wine.”
Big Sandy “got cut off,” he said, and the loss of demand meant closed businesses. The election in Winona hurt Big Sandy package stores, but the beer/wine election in Mineola crippled them, he said.
He said legalization would not impact his business, just spread him around more.
“It's going to hurt,” he said. “It has to when you get cut off.”
Rickard already has seen a change. Since Troup went wet last year he has noticed Whitehouse regulars no longer make the drive to Coffee City, he said.
He expects Tyler will be “trashier” if alcohol is approved there. He said he likes the town the way it is and should reject alcohol.
Asked if his comments reflected his hope for Tyler to remain a “nice town” or a more certain future, Rickard smiled. Asked what was at stake for the town of Coffee City during the two elections in Tyler and Justice of the Peace Precinct 2, Rickard said, “It's going to destroy (Coffee City).”
Staff Writer Jacque Hilburn-Simmons contributed to this report.