The race to legalize the sale of alcohol in Oneonta has been a slow-paced marathon for the members of A Better Oneonta, a progress citizens group led by Richard Phillips, Lisa Wester, and Bonnie Peavy.
“It’s time for this to happen,” Phillips says. “It’s time for this city to have this as an economic aid, it’s not necessarily the answer, but it’s a positive solution.”
For more than a year, the group has stood behind their belief to legalize alcohol sales for the increased revenue it will provide. First, for the entire county, but when that failed by less than 200 votes, they shifted their focus to their hometown of Oneonta.
“We’ve been anticipating this and preparing for this for a long time,” Wester says. “We are 100 percent ready to go. The petition is certified and has been accepted by the Oneonta City Council, so we don’t have to go through that process again. The statute states we have to wait 45 days after certification to hold a vote, and we are approaching a year since that’s happened.”
Numerous subjects have to be considered before an alcohol referendum is ready to be voted upon, but Phillips says with the town receiving the right to vote on the issue that’s their goal. The unknown remains when that vote will actually occur.
According to Oneonta city manager Ed Lowe, “The city is in the process of completing necessary research in compliance with a voting date.”
Peavy, an Oneonta attorney, says she expects the opposing side to file an appeal, and depending on how far they want to push the issue, it could lead to problems for more than just this community.
“If they attack the constitutionality of the statue, there are close to 50 municipalities across the state that could be affected,” she says. “That kind of appeal would go to the Alabama Supreme Court, and you can just imagine what a mess that would be.”
Peavy says she hopes the opposition will instead respect King’s decision and use their money to fund a campaign against the referendum rather than an appeal.
“That would be the best case scenario, but it doesn’t matter if this vote is next week or next year, our purpose is still the same. We realize some in this county are change-resistant, but it won’t be the change people think,” Peavy says. “It will probably be exactly the same.”
One step definitely remains before voting on the issue will be allowed. Under state law, the city must run advertisements announcing the election for three weeks in the newspaper, according to Phillips.
If a special election is conducted, Phillips says the quickest vote could happen early in the coming year.
“We feel like the people of Oneonta have already decided,” Wester says. “After the November referendum, when 57 percent of the Oneonta community voted to go wet, we saw that as a victory.”
Wester says Oneonta is the largest municipality in the state of Alabama that remains dry, and she claims the only reason is Blount County municipalities were disenfranchised with the denial of the right to vote on the issue until the latest ruling from Judge Steven King.
With this ruling, five Blount County municipalities – Oneonta, Blountsville, Locust Fork, Cleveland, and Hayden – have gained the right to vote on legalizing alcohol within their respective town limits.
“People have heard about this issue for so long they’ve grown tired of it,” Phillips says. “Now, either we can go wet, or the vote fails and we can try again in two years.”
Wester says she is aware the legalization of alcohol in Oneonta won’t cause an immediate economic boom, but it will open the door for new businesses. She also says, despite what some believe, it won’t negatively alter the state of the city.
“We are already dealing with the effects of alcohol, we just aren’t collecting the revenue,” she says. “Our police department is already arresting people for DUIs. It’s offensive to suggest our departments aren’t capable of meeting the needs of the community should we go wet. Rather, these departments are deserving of the extra revenue alcohol sales would provide.”
Oneonta Police Chief James Chapman says his department encounters alcohol regularly. Considering the proximity of nearby stores that do sell alcohol.
“I’ve been working in this department for 29 years, and since then, and even before then, alcohol has always been in Oneonta,” he said. “We have been dealing with this for as long as I’ve known.”
Despite the unknown future of the now-legal referendum, the members of A Better Oneonta are standing their ground on the issue and continuing to refer to the same impact points as they have from the beginning including the history of other alcohol-selling municipalities and their successes.
“I’ve never heard an official from any of those towns complain, and none of those municipalities are repealing their decision,” Wester says.