Rural Va. communities' long liquor runs could come to a halt

By Anita Kumar
Saturday, November 27, 2010

IN 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.

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