Rincon residents will get to decide if they want to allow restaurants that serve liquor by the drink.
In front of an overflow crowd in their meeting room, the Rincon City Council passed, by a 5-0 vote, putting a referendum on the ballot for February’s presidential preference primary.
“We are very happy it is moving forward, and the citizens will have an opportunity to vote on the referendum,” said Charlie Kea, president of the Community Progress Council of Effingham, a group that has pushed for the referendum.
Kea said his group considers full-service restaurants to be those that serve liquor by the drink but they do not endorse package stores or bars. Those restaurants also must make at least 50 percent of the profit from food sales.
Council member Scott Morgan said he struggled with the issue and heard from both sides.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. “I know this is a hot-button issue. I have a lot of people in Rincon who are for it. I have a lot of people in my church who are against it. For the last two years, I’ve been asked this question probably every week.
“In my eyes, when you have a decision this big, it needs to be voted on by the people.”
Said Council member Lamar Crosby: “I am comfortable with the referendum in this form and that it does not orient itself to include liquor stores or bars.”
All five council members present voted in favor of the measure. Council member Reese Browher was unable to attend the meeting.
The CPCE has been conducting a petition drive to determine if there are enough registered voters in Rincon to support such a vote.
Kea said they have been in contact with 491 voters and 448 of them have said they would support full-service restaurants.
“We wanted to discover for ourselves what the community’s heartbeat was,” he said.
The group also wants Effingham to bring those restaurants before they decide open in Port Wentworth.
“Time is of the essence,” Kea said. “The Highway 21 corridor is being heavily developed. The restrictions on pouring alcohol by the drink gives Chatham County an advantage over Effingham County. This is a big deal with the tax dollars we are losing.”
The CPCE said that current restaurant receipts in Chatham County from Effingham County residents go toward lowering Chatham taxes, funding Chatham schools and building Chatham parks.
Kea estimated that based on 40,000 people spending $100 a month in Chatham County means a loss of nearly $1.5 million in sales taxes annually.
“They’ll make a trip out of a whole day in Chatham County,” he said. “With Lowe’s coming in and all the other investment, we need to support those individuals who have invested in this community with full-service restaurants.”
Kea said he wasn’t advocating a boycott of Chatham businesses and restaurants, “but it’s Rincon first in my mind,” he said.
Dr. Bob Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rincon, said he found the term full-service restaurant as espoused by the CPCE to be misleading.
“We have full service restaurants in Rincon now,” he said. “They give great service. I sit down, they take my order, they bring service and I pay the waiter. And we already have beer and wine available.”
Rogers also noted the 2002 countywide vote on alcohol by the drink that was defeated 57 percent to 43 percent and the majority of Rincon residents voted against it.
He also questioned whether the ability to pour liquor by the drink is holding up the establishment of more restaurants in the county.
“The restaurants are going to come as the population grows,” he said.
In recalling a conversation with a banker, Rogers asked if he could offer a low-interest loan and the banker said he tried, but the restaurant wasn’t interested yet.
“They were waiting for some more population growth,” he said.
“The growth is coming. I’m excited to see it. But the question with growth is, what kind of growth do we want? Do we want it to be family-friendly?”
Rogers said he talks with families who move into Effingham for the good schools and low crime rate.
“I don’t see how liquor fits into that,” he said.
Kea said there was misconception in the community from the last vote that another referendum would not pass. That spurred the CPCE to begin its petition drive.
“It may be time to have this brought forth again,” Crosby said.
To be held in conjunction with the Feb. 5 presidential preference primary, the referendum would have to be held in Rincon, meaning Rincon voters may have to vote in two different places that day. The cost for the separate election is estimated to be from $1,500-$2,000.
Rincon also would have to get pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I would anticipate that would come fairly quickly,” city attorney Raymond Dickey said.