Cash-Strapped Communities Weaken Opposition to Alcohol Sales

When Marian Steich was growing up, bootleggers hung out at the gas stations, selling moonshine in flasks that fit into the side of a boot. On Saturday night, you'd have to drive an hour for a legal drink. On Sunday morning, you had to listen to the preacher condemn Demon Rum.

It was a prosperous town: three grocery stores, two general stores, two physicians, a cobbler and a rail station. Then Interstate 20 siphoned off the traffic, the train stopped running and Winona's prosperity blew away.

Last year, some business people proposed to bring it back by making the town of 600 wet. They hired Texas Petition Strategies, a consulting firm that has worked the wet side of hundreds of alcohol elections.

Leadership of Winona's drys fell to a reluctant warrior. Although Tony Watson, the local Baptist preacher, is an abstainer, temperance was not his burning passion. He was afraid the election would split his congregation.

The mayor worried it would split the town. Smith (who is married to Steich's granddaughter and who says he's not embarrassed to admit enjoying a beer or a whiskey) had heard stories of previous elections when wets' cars had their tires slashed and windows shot out — possibly because bootleggers wanted the town to stay dry as much as the Baptists.

When she said she supported the wet initiative, Steich says a friend told her, "We're shocked to think you would do such a thing!"

In the end, Smith joined the wets: "I've never understood why you have to leave the county to buy beer to enjoy in the privacy of your own home."

The vote in May ended in a tie — 94 to 94. In a revote six months later, the wets won by 18 votes. Four liquor stores have since opened in town, and several more are planned.

Smith says the city used to get $1,800 to $2,200 monthly in sales tax revenue; in May, it collected $11,000. The city is putting the money into a road repair fund.

Smith says none of the drys' warnings — about crime and littering — have come true.

Even the roads are safer, he says: "We've seen a reduction in speeding on the highway. Cars are stopping in Winona now."

Watson says the liquor stores, with their muddy parking lots and beer signs, make the town look "trashy."

"Right now, everyone wants to come to Winona," he admits. But what if other Smith County towns go wet, depriving Winona of its monopoly?

Regardless, he doesn't plan to refight the issue; reverting dry, he says, "would mean putting people out of business. That would get ugly."

"In 20 years, there won't be a dry county in Texas," he predicts. "There's not the stigma to alcohol anymore."

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