Questions about the Sunday sale of liquor by the drink in Ashland’s two “wet” precincts and allowing beer and wine to be sold at events in Veteran’s Riverfront Park generated the most disagreement during Tuesday night’s forum featuring the six candidates for the four seats on the city commission.
About 50 people were on hand for the nearly two-hour long forum sponsored by the Ashland Human Rights Commission in the teleconference room at Ashland Community and Technical College.
Ken Hart of the Independent and Randy Yohe of WSAZ were the moderators of the forum, but with few exceptions their questions were generated by members of the audience.
The two non-incumbents for city commission — former commissioner Cheryl Spriggs and first-time candidate Tim Duley — were the most outspoken in their support for alcohol sales on Sunday and at events on the riverfront, while the four incumbents were far less supportive.
Spriggs said city businesses that sell liquor lose some $90,000 a year in sales because they are barred from selling liquor by the drink. That money is going to restaurants in Huntington and Ironton where Sunday alcohol sales are legal.
“I consider this an economic issue more than an alcohol issue,” Spriggs said. “Our businesses are less competitive because they can’t sell liquor by the drink on Sundays.”
Duley, a lifetime Ashland resident and employee of AK Steel, agreed with Spriggs. He said Sunday is the biggest day for sports and sports bars in Huntington and Ironton are doing a booming business on Sunday while the bars in Ashland are closed.
Kevin Gunderson, a member of the city commission since 1990, said he is not convinced support for Sunday sales is that strong in Ashland. While there has been much discussion in The Independent about Sunday sales, he said he has only received one email in 2012 on the issue.
Gunderson said the 1981 ordinance allowing liquor sales in Ashland allows registered voters to petition for a referendum on Sunday sales and he recommended those supporting Sunday sales start circulating petitions for a vote on the issue
While the 1981 ordinance also allows the commission to simply enact an ordinance allowing Sunday sales, Gunderson said a referendum is the better route to travel for Sunday sales.
Commissioner Tom Cantrell also said supporters should petition for a vote on Sunday liquor sales. “If it is on the ballot, I would probably vote against it, but I could still support allowing the people to vote.”
Commissioner Marty Gute said there currently are four private clubs and 29 businesses where individuals can buy alcohol in Ashland six days a week. There also are nine liquor licenses now available for restaurants in the two precincts plus three licenses for package stores.
“If you want to buy alcohol, you have plenty of opportunities to do so,” Gute said, adding that he would oppose any changes in the status quo.
Commissioner Larry Brown said he personally opposes expanded alcohol sales, but if the petitions bearing enough valid signatures are filed, he would not oppose letting people vote on Sunday sales. However, he added that he would vote against Sunday sales.
Duley and Spriggs also were the only two commission candidates to support event beer and wine sales on the new riverfront.
While all the candidates agreed that the riverfront was being underused, they disagreed on how to encourage more use.
“I’m all for family events,” said Duley, but events like a proposed blues festival would generate much needed new revenue for the riverfront park. However, the blues festival and other similar events are not going to come to the Ashland riverfront unless they can sell beer and wine, he added. “We are losing out on a big revenue opportunity there,” he said.
Duley said he would like to see the return of boat races on the river, along with other events. He said he had no problems with promoters selling tickets for such events.
Cantrell said he would oppose selling tickets for an event on land paid for by taxpayers.
Gunderson said allowing liquor sales at one event opens the door for sales at other events. “Once the door is open, you really can’t say no to other events,” he added.
Gute said he only wants family-oriented events at the riverfront. “I want it to be a family-friendly place for concerts and other events,” he said.
“I want to see something going on at the riverfront all the time,” Spriggs said. “That means we have to lift our restrictions on how it can be used.”
On other issues, the commission candidates discussed the future of vacant buildings downtown. That question was particularly timely because the last three tenants in the G.B. Johnson Building, the former headquarters building for Ashland Oil at 14th Street and Winchester Avenue had just vacated the building.
Duley said that building plus other vacant buildings downtown needed to be marketed to small businesses. However, he admitted that filling the buildings will not be easy.
Brown said the demise of the federally endorsed enterprise zones has hampered new development downtown. “I think we should look possibly creating our own enterprise zone.”
Gunderson said Ashland Main Street should devote more of its efforts on filling the vacant spaces downtown and much less on bringing concerts downtown. “Main Street needs to be much more active in trying to fill these buildings,” he said. “To me, that should be its main focus.”
Spriggs said owners of downtown buildings need to lower their rent, and the city should look more into reviving its stalled Streetscape program.
Duley said he supported the development of more downtown apartments and promoting downtown as a good place in which to live.
The six candidates were divided on curbside recycling, with none of them supporting rate increases to implement it.
Spriggs said she has been an outspoken proponent of curbside recycling because it is a far more efficient and cost effective way to recycle than the recycling bins the city now uses.
Duley said if curbside recycling causes even one city employee to lose his or her job, he will oppose it. He also does not support raising fees for curbside recycling.
Gunderson said city residents had the opportunity to subscribe to curbside recycling, but 1,000 residents were required to launch the program and fewer than 500 signed up.
JOHN CANNON can be reached at email@example.com or at (606) 326-2649.