Dry No More

As the Park Hill area becomes one in a long line of teetotalers to strip away the last vestiges of prohibition
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A tidy, World War II-era subdivision full of Craftsman cottages and mid-century houses, North Little Rock’s picturesque Park Hill neighborhood has for the past half-century held a distinction that separated it from the rest of the city.

It was dry.

Or at least the main drag was. Thanks to a 1966 local option election, an area on either side of JFK Boulevard, starting around Interstate 40 and stretching for more than two miles, encompassing the neighborhood’s entire business district, was off-limits to alcohol sales.

That came to an end in November, however, when residents of Park Hill went wet at the ballot box, popping the top off the sale of alcohol in an area where buying a six-pack of beer had previously meant a road trip—if only a short one to nearby Lakewood or Argenta.

Steve Winchester, acting president of the Park Hill Merchants and Business Association, was one of the main backers of the effort, which became a topic of conversation in fall 2012. Once businesses start applying, he anticipates it will take up to three months for an alcoholic-beverage license to wind its way through the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Currently there are only a few likely candidates in the neighborhood—he names E’s Bistro and Rosalinda’s—and maybe there will eventually be more, but he didn’t think the election’s outcome would cause an immediate influx of watering holes.

“We weren’t really expecting just a flood of restaurants to come rolling in here,” he says, “but we had at least thought this was an uneven playing field. We don’t know whether it’s going to have an impact, but we did know the impact was nil before it passed.”

Much of the legwork to promote the election was handled by the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, whose president and CEO, Terry Hartwick, is also a former North Little Rock mayor.

“After all was said and done, it was time,” says Hartwick. “You could see the folks wanted to get Park Hill on an even playing field. It’s something that won’t change overnight, but it’s telling people for the first time who want to put a nice restaurant in with beer and wine, instead of telling them to go somewhere else, you can say, ‘Yes.’”

And that really has been a development issue, says Hartwick. He’s been told by the owners of the Kum & Go filling station that, had they known about the prohibition on alcohol sales, they wouldn’t have put their store in a few years ago. And he’s noted that over the decades, some of the area’s nicer restaurants, pizza places and grocery stores have gone away, all of which he attributes to the inability to sell wine and beer.

“The way I think of it,” Hartwick says, “the times have changed.”

Back in 1965, he notes, the local churches were a driving force behind the dry election. A decade ago, there was still noticeable resistance to the idea of alcohol sales, he says, but by about five years ago, attitudes had changed significantly.

“People noticed they were losing restaurants, and buildings that were vibrant in past years were standing empty,” Hartwick says. “The churches have people who have business there, who go [shopping] there, and they want to see their area prosper, too.” As a result, when he spoke with Park Hill pastors during the petition drive to see if they were upset with him, Hartwick says, they said they understood that times had changed, and they wouldn’t organize against the effort.

Similar scenes have unfolded beyond the state’s urban center. Last year, voters in Benton, Madison and Sharp counties turned those counties from dry to wet, allowing alcohol sales for the first time since the 1940s. The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board reported that almost 60 applications (mostly in Benton County) were submitted in the following two months. According to records from the Benton County Advertising and Promotions Commission, restaurant tax revenues have increased every month since the measure passed last year, up $71,000 year-to-date over 2012, although one official said it wasn’t clear how much of that was due to the legalization of alcohol sales.

Things aren’t moving quite so quickly in Park Hill. Since the election, only the Kum & Go station has applied for licenses—one for retail beer sales and one for small-farm-wine retail sales.

But after a half-century without being able to buy a drink along JFK Boulevard, waiting a little longer won’t be much of a task.

“I think it’s time,” says Hartwick. “I think you’ll see more restaurants. I think you’ll see a grocery store. I think you’ll see more shopping, and shoppers will have dinner, where before you couldn’t do that—you were going somewhere else to eat and sometimes somewhere else altogether.”

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