High Plains Snifter

After 118 years without a liquor store inside their city’s limits, Lubbockites are on the verge of voting with their thirst.
High Plains Snifter
Drinking Problem: Existing liquor stores on the Strip may go out of business if voters authorize package sales throughout the city.
Photograph by Artie Limmer

Victory Life Baptist Church, in Lubbock, is located on the southwestern edge of town, past the encroaching brick-home developments and box stores, out in an expanse of yellow, treeless fields so flat you can stand on the church’s doorstep and watch the membership approach from miles away. About eight hundred loyal churchgoers congregate here each Sunday to listen to the lanky, baby-faced 35-year-old pastor, Brad Jurkovich; they find his youthful enthusiasm, as well as his unapologetic and unembarrassed conviction, refreshing. One recent Sunday, for example, he grabbed his lectern, leaned forward, closed his eyes, and addressed the Lord by saying, “God, you are so great. You are just awesome.

Such passion for worship, some would argue, is flagging among newer generations of Lubbockites. The strict moral code that has defined life for decades on this stretch of the plains has lately shown signs of erosion. Case in point: the referendum on May 9 that would authorize package sales of alcohol countywide. Lubbock was the largest dry city in the country until 1972, when voters finally gave restaurants and bars the benediction. They confined liquor stores, however, to a single precinct, a little Vegas-like oasis at the edge of town known as the Strip. Now Lubbock seems to have outgrown it: The proposal to allow package sales is drawing bold, even strident support. For Jurkovich and his parishioners, it’s as if aliens have invaded the city.

I have struggled to find in Scripture ‘Thou shalt not ever take a drink,’” he told them on the Sunday I visited. “I wish I could point to words that said that. I can’t.” He nonetheless encouraged them to vote against the proposition. “I understand we see the great beer commercials, and I think they are a hoot! They’re funny! But I deal with the end result of the commercial. They never show you that on TV.”

A woman in the second row muttered, “No, they don’t.”

So why would we want to be flippant with this issue? I don’t see the benefit. You go from twenty-five alcohol outlets to two hundred fifty—I’m like, ‘Wow, that’ll bless you.’”

This point has not been lost on the two hundred-plus people who work in the Strip’s liquor stores, all of which will likely close if the referendum passes and alcohol becomes more accessible. The Strip is a landmark in this area. A crowded stretch of stores on a short road (named the Short Road by some literal-minded local), it can be driven end to end in about twenty seconds, but its fame transcends its size. Locals take visitors to see it at night. They gawk at giant marquees and red neon arrows that point to enormous drive-through garages where employees take your order right at your window. Texas Tech flags, surrounding the parking lots, are tattered to shreds by the brutal wind.

Still, no roadside attraction committee or historical commission has come to the Strip’s defense, and as in other localities on the verge of a dramatic expansion of liquor sales, existing purveyors of alcohol and pastors who oppose its consumption have become incongruous allies. Johnnie Stone, the supervisor of Doc’s Beer Depot, is a tidy, middle-aged man with oval glasses and a trim mustache. Standing in a wine aisle on the day I visited, he told me halfheartedly, “I do hear from some people who want the Strip to stay here.” But two college students wearing Texas Tech sweatshirts with cases of beer hoisted on their shoulders provided a clear picture of what Jurkovich and Stone are up against. “Move it to the city!” one said.

Less hassle. Especially when gas prices are high,” said the other.

As Stone arranged bottles on shelves nearby, a beefy Lubbock native named Ruben Venegas shouted that he’d been waiting fifty years for this moment. “Yeah, I signed the petition,” he said, his wife giggling and nodding at his side. “I was there the first day! I wanted to sign two!”

Dry districts have been falling like dominoes since 2003, when a lawsuit supported by the Texas Restaurant Association made it easier for local governments to modify alcohol regulations. The numbers from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission tell the tale: Before 2003, Texas had 51 completely dry counties; by 2008, that number had fallen to 32. In the past six years, more than five hundred petitions to expand alcohol sales have been issued across the state.

But how had Lubbock become vulnerable to this trend? For 82 years it held off saloons and kept its restaurants from selling liquor. The city is home to Lubbock Christian University and Wayland Baptist University; it is the place where George W. Bush lost a 1978 congressional race in part because he hosted a free kegger: A subsequent anti-Bush mass mailing addressed Nineteenth District voters as “fellow Christians” and decried Bush’s cynical use of alcohol to gain favor with the community. (He was also hurt by an ad that showed him jogging.)

These days, such moralizing would have far less traction. “I haven’t worked with a campaign in twenty years that had an objection to having wine at a reception,” local conservative talk show host Robert Pratt told me. “The community has changed tremendously.”

What was once known as the Bible Belt has become just as secularized as the rest of the country in worldview,” explained Bobby Dagnel, the pastor of First Baptist Church. “I just think it’s the result of a post-church, post-denominational culture in which we live. And that has happened across the South.” So much so that when the Lubbock police hauled off some oiled-up Chippendales dancers in mid-hip thrust two years ago for dancing in an unlicensed facility, the police force, not the dancers, received the city’s ire.

The conversion has even permeated the churches. Many Baptists now cringe at the stereotype of the Bible-thumping preacher. I called about fifty Baptist churches for interviews, and only a dozen held the line. David Wilson, the pastor of Southcrest Baptist Church, told me that he believed

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