Riff Raff: Fort Smith’s new ‘two preacher’ policy

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 361 views 

U.S. and Arkansas job and tourism growth related to microbreweries is on the rise. Church membership is on the decline. Wanna guess which has the ear of the Fort Smith Board of Directors?

Four members of the Board recently voted against a city ordinance related to where microbreweries – and microwineries and microdistilleries – may locate in the city. In doing so, they prevented Quentin Willard and Brooke Elder, with Fort Smith Brewing Company, from moving forward on a plan to open a microbrewery on the northside of the city – a section of town that could definitely use new investments and new jobs.

Fort Smith city staff provided the seven-member Board 55 pages of documents detailing the research, reasoning, benefits, and processes behind the requested ordinance change.

But that was no match against the “moral” concerns of two preachers.

George Wills Jr., with Ninth Street Baptist, simply said he was “opposed” to the proposal. Reverend Ulysses Washington from Mission United felt it was wrong to “locate a business such as this so close to our communities of faith.” Also, for matters of “safety” and “ethical and moral principles,” Washington said, he was opposed. No evidence. No documents. No petitions from local residents. Just two preachers show up at the last minute and kill the deal. Talk about your bully pulpit.

The documents provided to the Board by city staff also included interviews about microbrewery operations in other Arkansas cities. From the interviews, there had been no complaints about the microbrewery operations. In fact, several communities in other parts of the state are doing more to welcome microbreweries.

“It is a big up and coming trend in the tourism industry,” noted Jessie Leonard, communications manager with the Fayetteville Advertising & Promotion Commission. “We found we were having so many visitors requesting the information on local breweries that we started the Ale Trail program. It is a unique attraction because you are meeting the brewer, taking a tour and sampling the product. They are great assets to the community.”

But clear and consistent anecdotal evidence was no match against the “ethical” concerns of two preachers.

The Board also in the 55 pages had the opportunity to learn that Michael Langley, former director of the Arkansas Alcohol Beverage Control, told a Fort Smith city staffer that microbreweries are a “major benefit” to a community.

“In general, he was supportive of code changes to allow microbreweries in commercially zoned areas and feels that the impact is no more than that of that of a typical restaurant,” the Fort Smith city staffer noted in the report. “He also discussed the positive effect of tourism in a community that microbreweries can bring, which is a major benefit to a community that should be considered.”

The opinion of a person once responsible for alcohol policy in Arkansas was no match against the “communities of faith” concerns of two preachers.

Also, in the same location you can’t open a microbrewery, it is OK to open a bar or restaurant with a bar that would serve far more alcohol than Willard or Elder could make. But like everything else, that little fact was no match against the concerns of two preachers.

Something not mentioned in the city’s 55 pages or discussed by the Board is the city’s minority neighborhood in the area where the microbrewery would have operated. In Arkansas, black unemployment is typically more than double that of the overall population. Willard and Elder were going to bring jobs to the area and raise the property tax value.

But it probably would have been a waste of time to ask the two preachers – who preside over non-taxed entities – if it is ethical or moral to block the investment of a business in a minority neighborhood.

There are two reasons why this seemingly minor issue is worth this editorial space. First, the two preachers. While the Board has shown sparks of leadership in recent months, this event reminds us that this legislative municipal body continues to possess a weak spine and often fails to collectively display the mental acuity required for disciplined governing.

Second, the microbrewery industry in the U.S. is growing, and is becoming more of a “must have” in cities large and small that seek to attract and retain talented people. That fact was part of the testimony from Justin Leonard in Fayetteville and former ABC Director Michael Langley.

The industry is growing. In 2014, craft beer sales reached double-digits (11%) in terms of market share of all U.S. beer sales. The amount of craft beer brewed grew 18% in 2014, and the value of the beer rose 22%. The number of operating breweries in the U.S. in 2014 grew 19%, totaling 3,464 breweries. Throughout the year, there were 615 new brewery openings and only 46 closings. Also, craft brewers provided 115,469 jobs, an increase of almost 5,000 from the previous year, according to The Brewers Association.

A Director who voted against the microbrewery said it is important to consider the opinions of local leaders in a community, especially ministers who represent the members of their church.

Sure, if the opinions are substantive, of course. But this is not a theocracy. Drinking beer – if you are 21 – is legal. Making beer is legal. Governments, at any level, should not consider the “moral” or “ethical” concerns of anyone opposed to actions, products, or processes that the associated civil society has deemed legal.

When I suggested to this director that allowing the concerns of two preachers to outweigh a preponderance of evidence and force owners of a small business to incur more costs was a bullshit move by the Board, the director suggested that I had become too emotionally connected to the issue to understand it. That’s an incredible irony. Think about that. A politician who voted based on the emotional plea of two preachers leaning on the nebulous structures of their particular stripe of morality now suggests that me calling bullshit on that logic-suppressing vote somehow vacates my reasoning.

But it was an error on my part. I attempted to make my case to this director without the help of two preachers.