Pam Trent, owner of Oak Street Bistro, recently wrote a letter to the Conway newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat:
“Do people in the community know a woman running a small business in Conway is being bullied? In an effort to revoke my private club license, fairly granted in May of this year, the group ‘Citizens to Protect Our Vote’ has pushed for an immediate date for a hearing in Circuit Court. Although the group has challenged other liquor licenses that have been granted, no other restaurant/club owners, including one large restaurant chain, have had their cases pushed to the top of the list as mine has been. Of course, this legal fight will cost more time and money from my limited resources and could very well cost me my business. As a female business owner, I can’t help but feel discrimination …”
Laura Shelton wrote too:
“Poor, victimized Pam Trent asks us to fight for her business as she is being bullied because she is a female small-business owner. That has to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: Not Ms. Trent’s victimization, but her audacity. I too chose Conway as my home and as a place to raise my children. I also chose the school they attend. However, I had no choice in the fact that the ABC Board allowed Trent to sell alcohol one block away from my children’s school. I am weary of Pam Trent’s pity party and of the criticism heaped upon anyone who opposes selling alcohol in this dry county. The letter Faulkner County is technically “dry,” a decision made by voters the last time there was a wet-dry election in the county. A state law enacted a few years ago makes it difficult to call new wet-dry elections. But when there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, as there is with Faulkner County’s dry status, people find ways to get around it. The Conway business community felt that the city’s lack of restaurants that could dispense alcohol hindered economic development.
“It consistently ranks as one of the only things that potential business and industry speak of in a negative light,” says Brad Lacy, director of the private, nonprofit Conway Development Corporation. So the business people approached state Rep. Betty Pickett of Conway about making a change in the state mixed-drink law.
Originally enacted some 35 years ago, the law always contained provisions that allowed dry counties to be less than bone-dry. It said that the dispensing of cocktails in private clubs did not constitute the “sale” of alcohol and was therefore legal. Most dry counties, including Faulkner, now have at least one country club for high-income drinkers and at least one other private club for lower-income drinkers. But the law did not specify that restaurants could get private-club permits allowing them to serve alcohol. Pickett put that into the law with a 2003 bill. (She had an opponent in the 2004 election, but she’s not sure that was related to the alcohol issue. She won, anyway.)
With the new law in effect, Conway restaurants and proposed restaurants began applying for permits to serve drinks, much to the displeasure of the drys. The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has approved permits for the Oak Street Bistro and Mike’s Place. Outback Steakhouse’s application has been approved by the ABC director, but is on appeal to the full board. The Oak Street Bistro and Mike’s Place permits are being appealed to Pulaski Circuit Court by a group of drys called Citizens to Protect Our Vote. David Hogue, a Conway lawyer, represents the group. The name of Hogue’s law firm is Christian Legal Services.
Hogue said he made no attempt to have the Oak Street Bistro case heard first. It’s scheduled for a hearing Feb. 24. Hogue said he filed appeals of both the Oak Street and Mike’s Place permits. The Oak Street case was assigned to Judge Jay Moody, who took the initiative in sending out a schedule for briefing and hearing, Hogue said. The Mike’s Place case was assigned to Judge Alice Gray, who has not issued a schedule, Hogue said. That the Oak Street case will be heard first “has nothing to do with gender,” Hogue said.
Trent said that her business, which includes catering, has dropped off considerably since she got the mixed-drink permit.
“I used to cater to all the women in the churches,” she said.
In her letter to the Log Cabin Democrat, she wrote:
“As a small business owner, I’ve been pleased to be a part of the ‘local flavor’ that gives Conway its own character. … Our State of Arkansas is a patchwork quilt of wet and dry counties. With a wink and a nod from those in control, certain institutions have, for years, circumvented the restrictions imposed on dry counties by enjoying ‘private club’ status. Apparently, ‘What’s sauce for the gander’ is not, in this case, ‘sauce for the goose’ — and if the goose happens to be small business and female, her ‘goose might very well be cooked.’ Now I ask you, Conway, can we not fight to keep our small businesses healthy and thriving instead of fighting each other?”
And Laura Shelton wrote:
“I am a mother who every day has to worry that someone will have too many glasses of fine wine at Oak Street Bistro, run the stop sign beside the Conway Christian School playground, plow through the chain-link fence and kill one of my kids. Rather than fancying herself a victim of sexism, maybe Pam Trent should consider that her blatant disregard for the safety of children might be the cause of her sudden downturn in business and the vehemence of those who oppose her fight.”
A meeting of the minds does not seem imminent.