By a vote of 57 to 37, members of the Berea Chamber of Commerce who responded to a recent survey favor allowing drink sales in Berea restaurants that seat 100 or more.

Of the chamber’s nearly 295 members, 94 responded to the survey. The results were released Friday.

A July 31 referendum could “moisten” historically dry Berea, if voters approve allowing drink sales in larger restaurants.

On the same date, voters in Richmond’s Arlington/North Richmond precinct will decide whether they will join the city’s three other wet precincts.

The Berea Chamber is not taking a position on the issue, said Executive Director David Rowlett.

“Our government and public affairs committee wanted to raise awareness of the referendum and encourage people to exercise their right to vote,” he said.

The 23 survey respondents who said they were unaware of the referendum reflect the “low level of public discourse” on the issue so far, said Berea Mayor Steve Connelly. “I expect interest to increase as we get closer to the referendum at the end of this month.”

By 67 to 27, survey respondents said they “believe the ability to serve alcohol with a meal would help grow Berea’s economy.”

The margin was not so wide on the question, “Do you believe that Berea’s reputation as a ‘dry community’ is one of our major attributes and a contributing factor in the quality of life enjoyed by our citizens?”

The result was 51 “yes” and 43 “no.”

Only 30 said they believe that “alcohol sold by the drink through our local restaurants would cause an increase in our local crime rates.” Sixty-four said “no.”

Opinions were almost evenly divided on the question, “Does the availability of alcohol by the drink influence your choice of restaurants?” Forty-eight replied that it did; 46 said it did not.

Charles Hoffman, who chairs the chamber’s government and public affairs panel, said he was surprised by the survey results. A proposal similar to that on the ballot July 31 was defeated by a two-to-one margin in a 2000 referendum.

“I realize that a survey of chamber of commerce members is going to be more reflective of the business community instead of the whole city, but this result is still interesting,” he said.

The chamber’s goal is not to favor one outcome or the other, Hoffman said. “We want to encourage discussion of the issues and then have as many people as possible get out to vote.”

The Berea chamber previously surveyed its members’ opinions on whether the city council should increase local taxes and on the health department’s prohibition of smoking in public places.

The petition which called the referendum and the Berea chamber’s interest in the issue were probably sparked by the prospects for commercial development along the new bypass that will connect Interstate 75 Exit 77 with US 25 north of Berea, the mayor said.

The large commercial development about to begin construction on Exit 87 in Richmond also was likely a factor, he said.

The Berea City Council examined the results for other cities in the region that have gone “moist” in recent years, Connelly said. “We looked at Burnside, London, Corbin, Danville and Georgetown.”

Those cities have not had a significant increase in crime or other problems that could be attributed to restaurant drink sales, and they did report some increased economic activity, the city’s inquiries found.

Connelly said there are other questions to be asked about drink sales as a tool for economic development, especially in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

“If they can’t get a drink here, will tourists stop in Richmond or London instead of Berea? If we allow drink sales and attract a large chain restaurant to Berea, would it have an effect similar to Wal-Mart’s and drive smaller, locally based restaurants out of business?”

Berea also has to decide if it wants to follow a development strategy similar to Richmond’s, Lexington’s, London’s or Danville’s, Connelly said. “Or do we want to follow our own unique track?”

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