Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for October 2008

Solutions From A Bottle

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When you’ve been gone from a place for six years, you expect some things to be different upon your return.

I knew that would be the case when I came back to Van Zandt County, Texas, last November.  I expected to find changes in several components of the “scene” here — different people in some local governement positions, new school buildings, new stores and restaurants, that sort.  What I never expected to find, though, is not one but three dining establishments in the county that had licenses to serve alcoholic beverages.

Van Zandt County, you see, is that fortress of conservative living more commonly known as a dry county.  It has been for over a hundred years, as I found out from a local historian, ever since the state government declared the entire state dry in 1904 and then put it on individual county governments whether to allow the sale of “adult beverages” (the days of federal Prohibition, of course, superseded local law for a time).

So to suddenly find three oases in this desert, as it applies to anyone who enjoys the taste of something stronger than sweet iced tea, was fascinating.  In fact, it was intriguing enough that I decided it had to be examined via an extensive news feature, specially handcrafted by yours truly.

The result is in the Oct. 12 Van Zandt News and is entitled “Semi-Dry” (my headline).  It probably could have been made into a two-part or three-part series if I had been writing for a publication where my reporting duty was far more streamlined.  Still, I conducted interviews over a three-week period hoping to get at the jist of a societal and economic transformation that has been resisted for so long here.

What I found is that the local opposition to alcholic beverage sales is as strong as ever, but now so are the denizens who would like to have it available on the menu, maybe even in a grocery store cooler.  It’s a reflection of the changing residency demographic itself, the “old guard” suddenly being rivaled in number and voice by the “move-ins” from Dallas, Houston and other urban/suburban locales.  To paraphrase one of my interview subjects, if they had the option of buying a glass of beer or wine with their dinner somewhere there, they are bound to want the same option here.

But it’s more complicated a matter than just providing options.

Some of the locals are already bemoaning the end of an era, when Van Zandt County was somehow safer and more enticing a place to raise a family because you didn’t have to deal with beer, wine, and liquor being visible and readily available.  The problem is, just like the whole Ozzie-and-Harriet American family mythos of the 1950s, no such time or state of being ever existed.  Alcoholic beverages and their consumption have never slammed on some proverbial air brake at the Van Zandt County line.

In fact, the county line has been less a gateway to the good, clean life and more a neon exit sign for local spending.  One way to create an instant bout of nausea in any local official from Wills Point, Edgewood or Canton is simply to ask him or her for a rough estimate of how much local money goes over to Kaufman County and the coffers of Terrell, Kaufman and Gun Barrel City.  No sooner have you got the question out of your mouth than you get that reluctant answer face in return, possibly while downing a spoon or two of Pepto-Bismol.

Trust me, the package store owners in Kaufman County know it.  They — and I suspect the officials as well, privately — probably hope Van Zandt County and its municipalities never have a successful local option vote for alcoholic beverage sales.  They may soon be disappointed, as there is a petition drive now in Wills Point to get an election for beer and wine sales on the May ballot.

If it comes to fruition, and if it somehow beats what I’m sure will be howling opposition from some, get ready for a domino effect faster than a good bartender at happy hour.  If Wills Point goes wet, the last thing any of the other cities are going to tolerate is their citizens beefing up some other city’s sales tax revenue.

And if that did happen, it just might not be the end of the world as Van Zandt County has known it.

The morality argument aside, what this county has acquired in just the last two years are three very classy restaurants.  I’ve been a fairly constant face at Savannah Winery and Bistro in Canton since my return and I’ve dined a few times at Papadale’s Grill in Grand Saline, too.  I haven’t yet made it for dinner at the upscale Four Winds, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who have and who gush over the food, the atmosphere, and, yes in some cases, the wine list.

With careful construction of ordinances, the county and cities here can have classy beverage stores as well, not to mention the sales tax revenue boost supermarkets like Brookshire’s and Wal-Mart Supercenter would add with beer and wine sales.  The financial situation we are now in may have the biggest sway in this issue.  Wills Point and Edgewood struggle to keep city streets that aren’t a frontal attack on your vehicle’s suspension system, but they could probably rebuild every one of them with the annual revenue that goes west on Highway 80 to Terrell.  Canton has long had First Monday Trade Days to fall back on, but even a golden goose can’t lay eggs forever.

Regardless of what happens in the months to come, I know one thing that will remain the same in Van Zandt County: There will be drinking going on.  There always has been and always will be.

Only now, maybe the toasts and fine dining will bring about more changes — the positive kind — to the county.

Terry Britt would like it known that no package store clerks were harmed in the making of this column.  You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

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Written by terrybritt

October 13, 2008 at 2:37 am