More than 125 people packed the sanctuary of Sandy Grove Baptist Church on Tuesday evening to hear information about a new political action committee that will wage an old fight against the sale of beer and wine.
“We've fought against the sale of beer and wine in specific communities before,” said the Rev. Bruce Cannon, director of missions for the Bladen Baptist Association who is leading the charge. “But this is different.”
It's different because the May 6 ballot in Bladen County will include a public referendum that, if approved by voters, will allow for the county-wide sale of beer and wine. If passed, it would not allow any community to opt out.
Currently, four towns in Bladen County allow the sale of beer and/or wine — Elizabethtown, White Lake (wine only), Clarkton and East Arcadia. The referendum for county-wide sale of beer and wine is on the upcoming ballot because the Bladen County Board of Commissioners gave the approval at its Aug. 5, 2013, meeting.
The new PAC, which is calling itself Churches Against County-wide Sale of Beer and Wine, is a grass-roots effort that is focused on organizing the county's church congregations and residents in general to defeat the May 6 referendum.
Tuesday's gathering was the first of many meetings Cannon is organizing, but the effort won't stop there. Cannon said the campaign will include billboards, yard signs and a constant stream of information.
“We will take the high road on this,” Cannon said. “We will be aggressive, but we will remain factual.
“This isn't the topic I would have chosen to come together like this over, but it's time for us to take a stand,” he added.
The featured speaker Tuesday was the Rev. Mark Creech, a pastor of 20 years who is now the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. He spent nearly 30 minutes giving those in attendance a sustained cascade of factual information, Biblical references and historical quotes that continually hit their mark.
Creech said that alcohol is one of the signature issues for the Christian Action League, which often refers to scripture for the basis of its stance. Primary focus is given to Proverbs 20:1, written by King Solomon, which states: “Wine is a mocker. Strong drink is a brawler. And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
“This particular commodity mocks us as fools,” Creech said. “It makes idiots of us, and society readily accepts it.
“But alcohol is a drug that claims more addicts than any other drug,” he continued. “There are more deaths due to alcohol” than all the major illegal drugs combined.
Creech said those in favor of the sale of alcohol often point to the economic value — a point that can easily be refuted, he said. According to figures collected by the Christian Action League, the federal government collects about $9 billion per year in taxes on alcohol sales and states collect about $5 billion per year.
“Those figures combined represent less than 10 percent of the cost produced by alcohol problems,” Creech said.
In North Carolina, Creech said for every $1 in tax revenue generated by alcohol sales, the problems associated with alcohol will cost $21.42. He added that statistics show a person is killed every 53 minutes in an alcohol-related accident; that there are 10,000 drunk-driving deaths each year; and that one out of every six adults binge drinks at least four times a month.
“This is a difficult topic to discuss, because society has long accepted alcohol,” he said. “But if King Solomon didn't avoid it, neither then shall I.”
Creech told the crowd that many learned men throughout history have spoken against the use of alcohol, including Shakespeare, who once said “Oh God, that men would put an enemy in their mouth to steal away their brain,” and Abraham Lincoln, who said “Alcohol has its defenders, but no defense.”
Creech then got to what he said is “the crux of the matter at hand.”
“As a public policy, those who argue in favor (of alcohol sales) are not our enemy, nor are they evil,” he said. “They think it will bring economic prosperity.
“But you shouldn't let these people pick your pocket with promises they cannot come through on,” he added.
Creech said the facts show that people will drink more in areas where alcohol is more readily available.
“If this referendum is approved, you are creating a higher density of alcohol outlets in the county,” Creech explained. “The issue here isn't whether to drink or not drink. A policy that allows for multiple outlets across your county is a bad public policy.”
Bladen County currently has a total of 40 outlets selling beer and/or wine.
“Alcohol and wisdom just don't mix,” he said.
Cannon wrapped up the meeting by emphasizing the need for “community captains” who will get the message out to their neighbors about the May 6 referendum. And he promised those “captains” they would be kept in the loop along the way as the PAC continues the fight.
“I have a problem with the fact that those in other parts of Bladen County will decide that Bladenboro, Dublin and Tar Heel can sell beer and wine,” Cannon said. “We don't need fire water on our lips, we need the fire of God in our hearts.”
Not his first fight
Cannon has rolled up his sleeves in opposition of beer and wines sales before, but on a smaller scale.
His hometown of Bladenboro has taken a referendum to the voters for beer and wine sales before, in 2001, and an attempt to gather signatures for a petition to get it on the November 2013 ballot was ditched late last summer..
Cannon, who has lived and pastored in Bladenboro for 25 years, led the charge against beer and wine sales prior to the November 2001 vote — an election night he will never forget.
“My father lay in a hospital dying, but I knew this was where I was supposed to be — finishing the fight,” Cannon said. “That election night was bitter-sweet because my father died, but God gave us a victory over this same issue in Bladenboro.
“And my passion has not waned since,” he added. “We need to defeat beer and wines sales county-wide, and we need to defeat it overwhelmingly so it never comes up again.”
Cannon said he has heard rumors that passage of the May 6 referendum would attract a new Food Lion to Bladenboro. He also has heard that, if passed, Giorgio's would open a restaurant in Bladenboro.
“Neither are true,” Cannon said. “I've spoken to officials with Food Lion and any other grocery chain I could get ahold of. None are coming either way, because we don't have the numbers to support it. And (Giorgio's owner) doesn't know anything about moving into Bladenboro.”
As far as the economic numbers, Cannon said the dollars realized from alcohol sales are far more minimal than most people think. He pointed out that, according to the N.C. Department of Revenue, the four towns in Bladen County currently allowing alcohol sales generate the following annual income …
— Elizabethtown: $14,446.06
— White Lake: $1,137.28
— Clarkton: $3,359.15
— East Arcadia: $1,955.82
“I'd like to see beer and wine sales taken completely out of Bladen County,” he said, “because it gives up no economic advantage.”
Who initiated it?
A ballot referendum can be successful one of two ways: A petition can be generated that, if it gathers at least a certain percentage of registered voters, will be certified by the Board of Elections and, barring the deletion of too many signatures for any valid reason, the measure will be placed on the ballot; or a governing body can request the referendum be placed on an upcoming ballot for voters to decide.
The path taken for county-wide sales of beer and wine on the May 6 ballot was the latter, and chosen by Ron Taylor, owner and president of Lu Mil Vineyard in Dublin.
“The good, hard-working, church-going, taxpaying people of the county are who will benefit from the passage of the referendum,” Taylor said. “Some of us are tired pf paying taxes to haul off trash from Cumberland, Robeson, Sampson, Columbus and other counties and municipalities that sell beer and wine.
“We get no revenue from them and spend tens of thousands of our tax dollars disposing of that waste where our citizens and guests bought their beer,” he added. “If we weren't spending so much on solid waste, we could have better schools and higher paid employees.”
Taylor, a former state representative, said passage of the referendum would be a support to one area of agriculture in Bladen County currently being ignored.
“We are an agricultural community here in Bladen County,” Taylor said. “And we feel like we're being discriminated against because we can't sell in our county.”
Lu Mil's wines, which have been perennial winners at the North Carolina State Fair, are sold at some locations in Bladen County, but have more of a presence at restaurants in Robeson County such as Village Station in Lumberton.
“It doesn't matter to me how the vote goes,” Taylor said. “I feel the taxpaying citizens of Bladen County deserve the right to vote on the issue.”
Taylor saved his sharpest words for the efforts of the newly formed PAC.
“As a Baptist myself, I feel the preachers should strive to win souls for Christ and stay out of politics,” he said. “Our people in Bladen County are intelligent and deserve better than a preacher judging them when that preacher can't wait to get out of church and go eat a fine meal at a restaurant that has a bar in it.
“Has the (Bladen Baptist Association) ever put up a billboard against the illegal drugs that are in our middle schools?” Taylor continued. “Have they ever put up a billboard inviting people to church?”
Taylor said he expects some of the locations already selling alcohol to support the BBA efforts against the county-wide sale of beer and wine because they don't want the competition, and that that “is what the BBA supports. It's called greed.”
“The BBA is a good organization made up of great people,” Taylor concluded. “But they are misguided on this issue and are driving a wedge in our community.”