By Ivey Schofield
When Casey Shumaker and her husband moved from Florida to Bladen County two years ago to take over a small grocery store, she was shocked to learn that her new community of Ammon was “dry” – no alcohol sales allowed.
Now the business, K&C Store & Grill, is at the forefront of an effort to allow the sale of beer and wine across all unincorporated areas of Bladen County.
The county’s voters will decide Nov. 8 when they go to the polls for the midterm election. The alcohol referendum, which will be on the same ballot as the races for the local school board, sheriff and Congress, will need a majority vote to pass.
Shumaker encouraged county leaders to put the measure on the ballot, and she has bought dozens of “vote yes” signs to spread the word.
“I’m very community-based, even though I’m not from here,” she said. “It just took a Florida girl to come up here and challenge the board of commissioners to vote on it.”
Alcohol has a storied past in North Carolina, once a solid part of the conservative Bible Belt but now a more middle-of-the-road state politically and ideologically as newcomers continue to arrive.
North Carolina became the first state in the South to enact Prohibition when the General Assembly passed a law in 1908 – 12 years before the nationwide ban on alcohol, according to the UNC School of Law. Although national Prohibition ended in 1933, North Carolina waited another two years to repeal its law.
Then the state looked to towns and counties to decide whether they wanted to allow the sale of alcohol. In order to get rid of the ban, a majority of voters had to say yes.
Some municipalities across the state were quick to ask voters. In southeastern North Carolina, however, measures have been slow to appear on ballots due to concerns over preserving a family-friendly and religious environment.
Nowadays, most municipalities in the region allow the sale of at least malt beverages and unfortified wine (fermented wine with a lower alcohol content than wine with spirits), but residents in unincorporated areas like Ammon might have to drive 30 minutes to the closest town.
Shumaker, who used to work in the medical field, worries that some people start drinking on their way home from stores, which is especially dangerous on the two-lane roads that run through the county. Bladen already has the most traffic-related deaths in the state.
Shumaker wants to provide the service closer to the homes of her neighbors.
In September 2021, the Bladen County Board of Commissioners voted 6-3 to put alcohol on the ballot this November. The Rev. Cameron McGill, a board member who represents the district that includes Ammon, cast one of the nay votes.
McGill fought against the mixed beverages referendum in White Lake, where he has served as the pastor of Lake Church since 2014.
McGill said alcohol contributes to an array of issues, including domestic violence, traffic deaths and addiction, and he doesn’t think it should be up to the general public to make the decision regarding its widespread sale.
Substance misuse, including alcohol addiction, was identified as a top health priority in Bladen County in a 2018 “Community Health Needs Assessment.”
“I know I am in the minority of this thought, but it blows my mind why there is such an effort to take people out of the alcohol lifestyle and yet make it more available,” McGill said. “We would have a better community without it.”
Last year, voters in White Lake, a tourist destination known as the “nation’s safest beach,” disagreed. They passed a measure permitting the sale of liquor with 66% approval.
Town Administrator Sean Martin said the sale of mixed beverages has been a “non-issue,” since the few businesses that serve liquor have done well preventing customers from drinking too much.
“It’s been good for our economy,” Martin said. “And we’ve really seen hardly any impact socially from it.”
Allowing the sale of liquor attracts more tourists, who have come to expect alcohol during their beach vacations, Martin said. “It’s a service that’s offered. It’s not something you have to partake in.”
Even areas in Bladen County that do not see many tourists have moved more toward alcohol sales.
Bladenboro tried several times to put the measure on the ballot but didn’t succeed until 2019. That year the town council nixed a request to put a referendum regarding the sale of malt beverages and unfortified wine, but a petition with more than 400 signatures reversed that decision.
Now the town, along with Clarkton, Dublin, East Arcadia, Elizabethtown and White Lake, allows alcohol sales, according to the state ABC Commission.
“We’ve got alcohol in 90% of Bladen County,” McGill said. “It’s not like the day after [the referendum] were to pass or fail there would be a total wash across the county.”
McGill said he thinks the measure will pass in November.
Shumaker does too, but she is worried not enough people know about the issue to go to the polls.
She hopes to use the money from selling alcohol to qualify for a loan to start selling fuel at her general store. The goal is to attract truck drivers traveling on N.C. 242.
“I’m trying to grow the community out here,” Shumaker said.
The measure, however, wouldn’t just impact Ammon, which is surrounded by several Baptist churches. It would affect every resident and business that sits even one mile outside of a town that has sold alcohol for years.
“It would be a game changer for a lot of people,” Shumaker said, “not just me.”
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @schofieldIvey