For the past year, if you wanted liquor in Live Oak, you went to “the place down by the Walmart,” as locals there call it.
Its official name is Live Oak Liquors, and it is about half a mile outside Live Oak’s city limits. Until recently, it was the only place to get liquor inside Suwannee County.
Then, on July 31, Suwannee Liquors opened up and became Live Oak’s first liquor store inside city limits.
“The way I see it, we’re going to have a competition going on,” said AJ Thakor, a store clerk at Suwannee Liquors and the owner’s brother. “We’re going to have a drive-through in two weeks.”
Suwannee County became a wet county in 2011, leaving only three dry counties within the state: Liberty, Washington and Lafayette. The holdouts are Prohibition-era vestiges that now create a patchwork of laws across the region and entire state.(Map help: The blue markers contain county and municipality law information about the types of alcohol sold, day of the week, and location allowed. Sources: Municode and WUFT News reports)
Stores in cities and towns abide by different rules from those inside and outside their own counties. Varying forms of alcohol – from beer to malt beverages to unfortified wine – may or may not be sold at different times in different locations.
And no county or municipality allows any beverage to be sold at any hour in any location.
When Live Oak Liquors opened in October 2012, people no longer had to drive at least a half an hour away to get liquor.
Dishal Khetia, assistant manager of Live Oak Liquors, enjoyed having the closest liquor store around.
“It keeps us on our toes for how small it is,” he said. “It turns a good profit.”
As for the competition, Khetia doesn’t believe the new liquor store will change anything.
“His prices are not as competitive as mine are. They are within a few dollars reach… they shouldn’t be that big of a difference,” he said. “Plus, he doesn’t have Sunday sales… That one day’s what’s going to cost him.”
Although Suwannee County allows alcohol to be sold Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., neither Branford nor Live Oak, the county’s two municipalities, allow Sunday sales.
“I’ve studied this issue long and hard, there’s really no economic incentive or any extraordinary financial advantage to us within the city to do Sunday alcohol sales,” Nobles said.
Selling alcohol on Sunday would only provide tax revenue, according to Nobles, which would be minimal and not enough to justify allowing the change.
In addition to perceiving no economic gain from selling alcohol on Sunday, Nobles resisted the ordinance on moral grounds.
“On my part and the other two councilmen that supported my veto, there are moral reasons, and they are not much unlike what we have in our Bible Belt area here,” he said. “I have chosen not to compromise my personal conviction.”
“All they have to do is drive just outside the city limits,” Nobles said.
Nobles also disagreed in 2011 with the county going wet.
“Even though the majority of the people voted for the county to become wet, I think they had a job done on them,” he said. “People had been—and I hate to use the word brainwashed—but had been brainwashed at the fact that ‘Oh this is just going to bring a tremendous boost.’”
Councilman Bennie Thomas voted both times in support of the ordinance allowing for alcohol on Sundays. He believes you cannot stop people from drinking by making it illegal.
“Every day is the Lord’s day,” he said. “I’m just as much Christian as anyone else. It’s not what goes in anybody, it’s what comes out.”
When Suwannee went wet, people thought there would be drunks on the street, Thomas said. So far, he hasn’t seen any.
“The people in this county voted two-to-one to wet this county,” he said. “And I think they have been deprived for what they really voted for.”
SuwanneeYES! was the political action committee that took the steps to make the county wet. The organization was run out of Spirit of Suwannee, an event venue and campground that attracts more than 600,000 guests a year.
The county was preventing itself from “thriving” by remaining a dry county, according to James Cornett, president and CEO of Spirit of Suwannee.
Before Suwannee County went wet, guests at Spirit of Suwannee events would stay in Lake City in neighboring Columbia County instead of Live Oak. They were limited by the restaurants and hotels that did not sell alcohol, Cornett said.
“Red Lobster, Olive Garden, they’re just not going to come without the ability to sell alcohol,” he said. “It’s not because the president of the company or the guy making the decision wants to go out and have a drink. He can get his booze, that’s not the issue: It’s the social atmosphere that comes with it.”
Without alcohol, the organization also argued, small counties were forgetting about tourism, a major economic engine in the state.
“We have the highest concentration of springs in the world in this region,” said Robin Young, an associate at Spirit of Suwannee. “In order to bring people to these places to enjoy the beauty, and to have facilities and businesses and hotels and restaurants they’re normally accustomed to, you’ve got to have the alcohol sales to be able to capture that tourism audience.”
Lafayette is a small county and one of the last to remain dry. Mayo, the county’s only municipality, is a small town through which Highway 27 threads. It is surrounded on all sides by farmland.
“A lot of times you look around and there’s not even a car,” said Vi Johnson, owner of the antique store The Dust Catcher. “Like Saturday afternoon? It’s like they pulled in the sidewalks.”
Johnson has lived in the county for 43 years. She serves on the Chamber of Commerce. When people ask for information about the town at the courthouse or town hall, they are sent to the antique store to talk to “Miss Vi.”
For those in Lafayette, the closest place to get liquor is Perry – about 17 miles away in Taylor County. Otherwise, residents have to stick with beer and wine coolers, which are sold in the three gas stations along Highway 27.
Liquor is not the only thing people go out of town for. The closest place to buy clothes is a dollar store, one of the only signs of big business in the county.
“They think nothing over here of going all the way to Gainesville to get school clothes,” she said. “Lake City, Gainesville. Just hop in the car and go, because they’re so used to it.”
The chamber has tried to attract and establish businesses within the county, in order to keep people in the town. Companies like McDonald’s and Hardee’s have looked into opening locations there but refrain, saying Mayo’s population of 1,237 is too low.
“But look at Branford (population 712). It’s a small place, but it’s growing like crazy,” Johnson said. “So, I don’t understand. I just really don’t understand.”
Debby Mathews has worked at the L&R General Store just outside the town of Mayo for four years. The store sells beer, sometimes more than 300 cases a week. Not being able to purchase liquor in the county does not prevent residents from drinking, Mathews said. Since 2011, they can simply drive to wet Suwannee County.
“They don’t drink less,” she said. “They drink a lot. And they can go right across the bridge and pay the same amount of money for a higher alcohol content. And they can go across there and get a bottle of wine.”
The claim that not selling alcohol drives local traffic out of town was a cornerstone of the SuwanneeYES! push to turn the county wet.
“They do not curtail drinking by being dry,” Cornett said. “What they more so do is encourage people to drive to the neighboring county to get their dining, do their shopping, fill up their gas tank and possibly drink and drive home.”
In Live Oak, competition has already begun within the city between the two liquor stores. Spirit of Suwannee’s 2013 event calendar has grown longer than a few years ago, thanks to the tourism boost that alcohol sales helped spur. And the Suwannee County Development Authority is now paying about $10,000 to hire an outside consultant to analyze its economic progress and make suggestions on how to improve.
Across the Suwannee River, the story is different. While additional alcohol tax revenue would not completely solve the budget woes of Lafayette County’s municipality, it might help.
For now, businesses there are limited in what they can provide.