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Liquor an hour away? McDonnell's plan would give 13 Va. counties some relief.

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 7:57 PM

FLOYD, VA. - Each night, a handful of regulars gather around the circular-shaped bar at Ray's Restaurant on Lazy Lane for a famous Hatcher burger, beer fries and, of course, a drink or two.

Residents who want a taste of something stronger than beer or wine in this rural county in southwestern Virginia have a choice: They can go to Ray's or drive 40 minutes on a winding, one-lane road through the mountains to neighboring Montgomery County.

"It's a pain, that's what it is,'' said Ray's regular Tony Yurkevicius, 49, who travels to a state-owned liquor store in Christiansburg once a month to stock up on $80 worth of black cherry-flavored Jim Beam Red Stag and Absolut Vodka.

Floyd is one of 13 counties in Virginia with no liquor store - a little-known statistic that has residents in some parts of the state driving up to an hour away to buy rum or vodka, whiskey or bourbon. But Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's proposal to privatize the state's 76-year-old liquor monopoly could potentially bring relief to some of those counties by nearly tripling the number of stores that sell liquor in the state from 332 to 1,000.

McDonnell's plan would allow Virginians to buy liquor in places where beer and wine are sold - grocery stores (including the Food Lion in Floyd), convenience stores, big-box stores or private stores that sell alcohol. The stores would have to buy a license.

"If Food Lion gets [a license], some of them will probably boycott until they realize there is no other place to go," said Ray Hatcher, owner of the restaurant he inherited from his parents, who opened it in 1937 as a country store. "They'll get used to it. They'll live with it."

Hatcher, 67, a lifelong Floyd resident born in an apartment above his family's business, led a movement in the 1990s to get an initiative on the ballot that would allow the sale of liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants in a single district of the one-stoplight county. The first time it was put to voters in 1991, it was defeated. The second time, in 1996, it passed.

"I wouldn't want chain after chain here, but a liquor store would be okay," said Roy Rowsey, 50, a Floyd painting contractor who regularly drives to Christiansburg to buy Crown Royal whisky. "If we could have the convenience, it would be great."

McDonnell met considerable opposition to his original plan in both the Democratic-led Senate and GOP-controlled House of Delegates, in part because it would bring in $47 million less each year to the state. He has agreed to modify it in time for the legislative session in January.

This week, a report by the General Assembly's investigative arm released a study that found that McDonnell's original proposal may have overstated by tens of millions of dollars the amount of money Virginia could make from selling the entire system. The report, by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, found that in many instances, his administration was too rosy in its estimates, but in others it simply made mathematical errors.

McDonnell now has less than two months to drum up support for one of his key campaign promises, an idea that many Virginians, while generally supportive of it when asked, are not lobbying legislators to approve.

Religious opposition

In rural communities, where residents stand to benefit the most from the proposal, some are bracing for opposition to liquor stores by religious leaders who wield so much influence that some feel the need to hide their drinking habits.

Already, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, an umbrella group affiliated with more than 1,400 churches across the state, and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy have come out against the proposal. They fear, in part, that wider availability of alcohol would lead to increased consumption.

The Rev. Joe Womack, interim pastor at Floyd Baptist Church, said Floyd, a county that in recent years has lost most of its industry and become known for its thriving but tiny arts community, runs on three things: faith, family and land.

"People have a tremendous amount of joy and fun - but that doesn't mean they have to have alcohol to do it," said Womack, whose church has more than 300 members. "The rest of the world can have it, but we don't want it."

In a resolution opposing McDonnell's proposal this month, Virginia Baptists said "the abuse of alcohol constitutes one of our Commonwealth's greatest social ills, bringing tragedy to families, robbing industry of productivity and saddling taxpayers with the burden of funding redemptive programs."

The Rev. Shelton Miles, who helped write the resolution, said Virginia Baptists are concerned about underage drinking, drunken driving and alcohol abuse they believe would come with privatization.

"I'm just tired of burying alcoholics," said Miles, pastor of First Baptist Church of Republican Grove in Halifax County. "It will be better if we keep the system we have right now. If we can do this, there is a certain universe of people that will be better off."

Ray's regular Hawthorne Stuart, 70, who lives in the Copper Hill area of the Floyd, acknowledged that some people who live far from a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control store can't wait to get home before having a sip or two.

"How many people are going to drive all the way home from Christiansburg without opening the bottle?" he asked.

The 13 counties without liquor stores - 14 percent of the state's 95 counties - are scattered across the state from east to west. In some cases, the closest store is actually in another state - North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee or Kentucky.

Voters in five of the 13 counties have passed ballot measures since the end of Prohibition in the 1930s that ban liquor stores from opening in their jurisdictions. Six counties do not allow distilled spirits to be sold in bars and restaurants.

ABC officials said they considered opening a store in Floyd in 2005 but called it off because of opposition.

Floyd County Administrator Dan Campbell said some residents may get fired up about a new liquor store opening or a grocery or convenience store acquiring a liquor license but that most residents "live and let live."

Campbell, who was city manager in nearby Galax when a liquor store opened there in 2004, said ABC officials faced no backlash.

Making the drive

While some in rural communities support McDonnell's proposal, some say they are accustomed to driving far, making detailed lists and schedules to get their errands done, and would be willing to continue do so to keep their community free of traffic and clutter.

"They're used to it," said Mike Maynard, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in liquor-free Grayson County on the North Carolina border known for its Fraser fir Christmas trees and cattle farms. "In rural Virginia, people are forced to drive long distances for jobs, goods and services."

Most officials in the 13 counties say they have not debated the issue or heard from any businesses interested in opening a stores or acquiring a license.

Two industry groups representing larger retailers said they are supportive.

The Virginia Retail Merchants Association, which represents more than 5,400 retailers and other businesses throughout the state, and the ABC Privatization Coalition, a consortium of mostly major retailers including grocery stores, CVS, Wal-Mart and Costco, said the plan would provide customers with more convenience.

"Our retailers have heard from their consumers that they would like easier access to spirits," said Laurie Peterson Aldrich, association president. "Convenience is a significant factor in our shopping habits today when our time has become so stretched, and retailers understand this."

Retailers, such as Hatcher, the owner of Ray's Restaurant, also must drive to buy liquor for their customers.

In Virginia, bars and restaurants are charged the same retail prices for liquor as residents who buy a single bottle for themselves, and they must pick it up at state stores instead of getting it delivered like in other states. That is expected to change if McDonnell's proposal is adopted.

"It's not a problem," said Hatcher, who drives to Christiansburg. "We just do it once a week. We always make the trip when we have something else to do. There are quite a few things that Floyd don't have that people don't mind driving for."

McDonnell most recent proposal calls for 1,000 licenses to be auctioned to 600 large stores, 150 free-standing package stores, 150 drug and convenience stores, and 100 small stores owned by companies that employ no more than 50 people.

Buster Lewis, chairman of the board of supervisors in Rockbridge, a liquor-free county nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, predicts businesses will be interested in opening up a store in that western region of the state.

"We have some entrepreneurs in the county that would be willing," he said. "There would be a market."

In Rockbridge, most residents shop at the same ABC store - dubbed Aunt Bessie - in a strip mall anchored by a Kroger and Sears on Nelson Street in Lexington.

Jerry Nay, 78, a retired Air Force colonel who used to teach at nearby Virginia Military Institute, lives near the Lexington store, where he purchases scotch and vodka once a month for himself and his wife. He said he's not sure another liquor store would survive in the area because residents already come to Lexington for all their shopping needs.

"A store in the boondocks? I don't know if it's financially feasible," he said, adding that 99.9 percent of people "have to come to town anyway. What are we trying to fix?"

kumaranita@washpost.com Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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