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.

May 2009By Comments

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 Jesus had turned water into unfermented wine, but such was the cultural change in Lubbock that some local ministers were even in favor of the vote’s passage. “My opinion is I think it’s absolutely pointless to keep bringing it up,” said youth pastor Mika McDaniel, of Heights Fellowship. “People have already spoken. Leave it alone. Let’s move on.” (My voice recorder didn’t pick up the sound, but I believe I heard the town’s churchgoing founders rolling in their graves.)

Some, like Lubbock county elections administrator Dorothy Kennedy, have witnessed the steadily growing interest up close. Since 2003, when the statewide petition rules were changed, an average of one Lubbockite per week has called Kennedy’s office to ask how to start a liquor petition. The callers want easier access to liquor, more competitive pricing, and additional tax revenue for the city. For a while, however, no one was organized enough to get the required 18,745 signatures in the allotted sixty-day period.

That changed when the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce got involved. For city leaders, extra sales-tax revenue is irresistible. According to one study, Lubbock stands to rake in $5.2 million. Last July the chamber formed a political action committee called Let Lubbock Vote and hired a firm called Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures. On October 1, the TPS machine sent an army of professional petitioners to the local Wal-Marts.

The response was overwhelming. Petition workers were looking for 350 signatures; by the end of that first day, they had 4,000. They complained to their bosses that they couldn’t get up from their tables to take rest-room breaks without being accosted by people who had come specifically to sign the petition. Let Lubbock Vote had the standard sixty days to conclude the drive. Its petitioners finished in nine.

“Lubbock is different from other towns I have worked on in one respect,” said TPS co-founder John Hatch. “I’ve never seen a community more anxious to have this vote.”

Aside from the small efforts of pastors like Jurkovich to rally their troops against the measure, the only thing that has a chance of stopping it is the vigorous opposition of Brant O’Hair, a 53-year-old with a head of thick white hair and the healthy glow of a man in an advertisement for heart medication. When he is not running O’Hair Shutters, a business started by his father, O’Hair acts as the spokesperson for Truth About Alcohol Sales, a political action committee that has enjoyed the strong support of the Lubbock Area Baptist Association. One morning a few weeks ago, I visited him at his office, where dark-wood custom shutters adorned every window. He told me that underage drinking was his main concern. “A combination of that and our not wanting to see our town start looking more like Amarillo.”

Years ago, church leaders could have made political headway using religious arguments. But public persuasion has to be more secular nowadays. O’Hair claims, for example, that an increased number of liquor outlets would result in increased crime. “The proponents of this consider it to be economic development,” he told me. “What a crock. At what cost?” He feels that big businesses from outside Lubbock are exploiting the community for their profit, pointing out Wal-Mart’s contribution of $50,000 to the Let Lubbock Vote PAC. He insists he is not a prohibitionist. “We’ve got the Strip,” he said. “There it is. Have fun.”

O’Hair is counting on his ability to mobilize the churchgoing base: He envisions a quiet, determined voting bloc, perhaps a minority but still large enough and single-minded enough to swing the election. So far, he has signed up over one hundred volunteers and raised more than $30,000. He’s hoping for small contributions from the Baptist families of Lubbock and plans a surgical strike of direct mail to likely voters. If the measure passes, he believes, “it’s just another step down the slippery slope.”

“You know Jimmy Stewart? It’s a Wonderful Life?” he asked. “I don’t want to see Lubbock look like Pottersville.”

Will O’Hair’s silent base materialize on May 9? Does it even exist anymore? I assumed I would find plenty of traditional, no-liquor types at Furr’s cafeteria. I headed over on Super Bowl Sunday, looking for a canary in the coal mine.

I sidled up to an older couple, Marty and Bobby Dalton, who were ordering ham and turkey dinners. Their children had left home years ago, and now they were retired, spending most of their time babying their dachshunds. Bobby had worked for 31 years as an auto mechanic in a shop right near the Strip, and on Tuesday and Friday paydays, folks lined up to get onto the Short Road, blocking the entrance to his business.

“I usually closed at five-thirty, but on those days I’d close at seven o’clock because I couldn’t get out of the driveway,” he said. “Our churches in Lubbock have been pretty strongly against having packaged alcohol, but I asked our preacher if he’d preach on it and he said, ‘I hope they pass it!’” He laughed. “We don’t drink, but . . .” He shrugged. His wife looked up. “We’re voting for it,” she said.

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