Change is Brewing

How will the availability of alcohol in once-dry Cullowhee affect the area?

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

For Western Carolina University students of a certain era, a beer run entailed a roughly 17-mile trip along a twisting, turning, two-lane road over Balsam Mountain to Waynesville, which until 1978 was the town nearest to campus where beer could be purchased. This fall, there’s no need even to hop in a car, because beer now is being sold within walking distance of campus.

During a May referendum, Jackson County voters overwhelmingly approved countywide sales of beer, wine and mixed drinks, prompting some Cullowhee businesses to obtain state alcohol permits. The availability of alcohol in close proximity to the university long has been touted as a missing piece in the economic development puzzle for Cullowhee.

Already, a handful of area restaurants have begun selling alcoholic beverages. Two convenience stores, including Bob’s Mini Mart in the university-owned business district in the center of campus, now carry beer and wine, and a new “package store” is opening in a mobile home near the Cullowhee post office – which has some residents decrying a lack of zoning and worrying about what type of development may pop up on the university’s doorstep.

At least two eateries in nearby Sylva are looking seriously at opening new ventures in Cullowhee, and the Mad Batter, a popular campus bakery and café, is expanding its menu and hours of operation and considering launching a second venue. In “Old Cullowhee,” a new establishment doing business as the Empty Keg received county approval for its ABC permit in late July. And while county officials and local business owners seem uncertain about the amount and pace of change, most agree that change is brewing.

‘OVER THE HUMP’

Although Howard Buchanan ’73 MAEd ’81 wasn’t much of a beer-drinker during his years as an undergraduate student, he still remembers tales his classmates would tell of often-harrowing trips across Balsam Gap to Waynesville in search of beer. “It wasn’t an easy drive by any stretch of the imagination,” said Buchanan, a retired educator. “You’d get caught behind logging trucks on their way to the paper mill, and it would take forever.” Sometimes, students would pop the top on the way back to Cullowhee and, sadly, over the years the mountain road and the Tuckaseigee River would claim the lives of students in automobile accidents, oftentimes involving drivers under the influence.

Beer runs got significantly shorter in November 1978 when Sylva residents approved the sale of malt beverages within town limits, a development hailed by the 1979 edition of The Catamount Yearbook as signaling “no more trips ‘over the hump’ to Waynesville for the week’s quota of beer.” But that doesn’t mean beer runs were necessarily safer. Buchanan’s brother, Jim Buchanan ’83, wrote a Western Carolinian article detailing the tragic Homecoming weekend of October 1980 when six students and a recent graduate died in two separate car wrecks after their vehicles plunged into the river. Although newspaper accounts do not mention intoxicated driving (and accident reports from 32 years ago are no longer available, said WCU Chief of Police Earnest Hudson), the time of day and direction of travel indicate that alcohol may have played a role; Jim Buchanan’s story reports that the four people killed in one of the crashes were on their way to Sylva’s A&P supermarket, known in those days for its well-stocked beer section.

Bill Shelton ’69 admits he was among the lucky ones, and he is among those who view having alcohol sales closer to campus as a safety issue. “Students can be imprudent and think they are invincible. I know I certainly did some things in my youth I would never do today,” said Shelton, a retired database administrator from Winston-Salem. “I remember driving back to campus from a beer run to Waynesville and getting stopped by the sheriff – his wife was in the car, too, and she was wearing curlers – when I was three sheets to the wind. I never should have been behind the wheel of a car. Having alcohol closer to campus will cut down on things like that.”

Throughout WCU’s history, entrepreneurial spirits found innovative – if not always completely legal – ways to get around North Carolina’s often-complicated alcohol regulations in order to quench student thirsts. “In the ’60s I knew a fellow who, for 50 cents a pint and $1 for a fifth, would make runs to Asheville, the closest place for liquor,” said Norman West ’68. “His house would be packed on Friday nights when everyone went to pick up their whiskey.” In the 1970s and into the early 1990s, many off-campus fraternities would host “beer night” bashes, charging admission or selling plastic cups to help recoup expenses.

“In the early ’80s there were two guys who had a ‘beer club’ behind the Baptist Church, when on certain nights they had music and beer,” said West, whose real estate company is headquartered nearby. “From my office you could see the beer truck unloading several kegs on a weekly basis.” Also in the 1980s, not long after the four-lane N.C. Highway 107 was built, a private club called “Thirsty’s” opened in the basement of a restaurant at the historic entrance of campus, he said. “It was wide open and would have had to be five notches higher to be called a dive,” West said. “You had to be a member and you bought a cup when you went in and got free beer all night. They had live bands, no control and the stories were legendary. The crowds were enormous, filling up my parking lot on weekends, and I was a long way from there.” Eventually, he said, the club closed and the crowds dissipated.

And as university officials began cracking down on fraternity beer bashes – which often included fights, injuries and arrests – other taps in Cullowhee began to dry up. The taps might have dried up in Sylva, too; a 1984 effort led by area churches to stop the flow of alcohol there failed when voters approved the continued sale of beer by an even larger margin than the original approval in 1978. The late 1990s saw the opening of a private club called J Edwards on a prime piece of real estate just across N.C. 107 from campus. The owners, taking advantage of a loophole in state regulations allowing the sale of alcohol at “private sports clubs,” paved a vacant lot to create two tennis courts, offered memberships and began selling alcohol, including mixed drinks. It proved difficult to sell enough food to meet state requirements, however, and the club closed after two years.

NEXT ROUND

Fast-forward to May 8, 2012. Four alcohol-related issues were on the ballot as county voters went to the polls for the N.C. primary election: for or against the countywide sale of beer, wine and mixed drinks, and countywide sale of liquor in state-operated Alcohol Beverage Commission stores. (Sylva, which has had an ABC store since 1967, approved mixed-drink sales within town limits in 2006, while nearby Dillsboro has allowed beer and wine sales since 2005). After votes were tallied, all four issues were approved by a margin of at least 56 percent.

Bob Hooper shows off the new cooler he installed over the summer in his eponymous Cullowhee convenience store.

Perhaps the loudest opposition to countywide alcohol sales came from Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, who refused to grant alcohol permits to several Cullowhee businesses because of their proximity to WCU. County officials quickly removed responsibility for the local government opinion aspect of the process from Ashe, who could not be reached for comment for this story. By mid-July, seven Cullowhee area businesses had obtained their permits.

So what does it all mean for Cullowhee and WCU? Many say the availability of alcohol near campus will have a positive economic effect – eventually. “From the big picture perspective, it will be interesting to see if this has an impact on potential investment around the campus,” said Chuck Wooten ’73, longtime vice chancellor for administration and finance at WCU who now is Jackson County manager. “I believe it will open doors to investment opportunities for some businesses and restaurants that weren’t there before because of the lack of the ability to sell alcohol,” said Wooten, now the county-level designee to review alcohol permits.

Gerald Green, director of the Jackson County Planning Department, agrees. “I do see more business locating in Cullowhee, and I am optimistic for the future of the community,” said Green, who lives in Cullowhee. “We are beginning to promote Cullowhee as a place for investment and opportunity. I am hopeful that we will see more businesses and more residential development to take advantage of those businesses, as well as take advantage of all that the university has to offer.”

Several other initiatives also could affect Cullowhee’s future, including a new community planning effort to guide development in an unincorporated area lacking an official governing body in a county without land-use planning regulations. A state Department of Transportation project to replace an aging bridge over the Tuckaseigee could change the face of a portion of historic Cullowhee, while community members have formed the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor. Among CuRvE’s long-term goals are supporting current businesses and attracting new dining, shopping and entertainment venues; building safe paths linking the area to campus; and increasing the availability of housing. CuRvE also is playing an active role in efforts to develop a river park with fishing spots, picnic tables, trails and whitewater
recreation areas.

Area business-owners are quietly optimistic. “I think Cullowhee is about to boom,” said Alex Rodriguez, owner of Sazon Mexican Cuisine. “We are seeing just a little hint of what is yet to come. I think that now, after so many years of lagging behind, we have a real chance to develop and prosper. A lot of things are happening right now, a lot of talk behind the scenes. And I hope it happens. I call Cullowhee ‘my little heaven.’ We have the river, we have the mountains, we have the people and we have the university. Now we also have one more piece of the puzzle that can help bring it all together.”

Preston Jacobsen ’09, with Jeff Brotherton ’85 (right), re-creates the purchase of the first beer sold in a Cullowhee restaurant after May’s countywide referendum.

That extra element is the ability to offer alcohol, said Rodriguez, whose restaurant made a bit of history when it became the first establishment to sell an alcoholic beverage for on-premises consumption after the referendum. Preston Jacobsen ’09, who operates the Local Yokel Weather website, was determined that he also would be part of Cullowhee history.

“More than anything, I was excited about this positive development for Cullowhee. I voted for it. I even kept and framed the sticker I got for voting. I told Alex I wanted to be the first person to buy a beer in Cullowhee, and he kept me up to date on his permitting process,” said Jacobsen, who was joined by friend Jeff Brotherton ’85 at about 11:45 a.m. June 5 after the permit arrived. “We made a toast, and we had a beer with our lunch. I just wanted to be able to say I was the first person to buy a beer in Cullowhee. I’ve had a few people from the 1970s tells me ‘Well, I bought beer in Cullowhee when I was a student.’ But I can say I had the first legally sold beer in Cullowhee.”

The beer, a Bud Light, was a bit warm because it had just come off the truck, Jacobsen said. “But it didn’t matter to me,” he said. “It was one of the best beers I’d ever had.” It won’t be the last to be served in Cullowhee, Brotherton said. “This should provide an economic boost to Cullowhee and for Western Carolina University,” he said. “Now returning alumni will have a place to go to get together and have a nice meal and enjoy the beverage of their choice.”

Cullowhee business owners say it is too early to predict the overall economic impact of the availability of alcohol, but there are some positive early signs. “We won’t really know until all the students and faculty members get back into town,” said Rodriguez, whose business also has a fully stocked bar. “It is true that we have seen a bit of an uptick in business from faculty and staff over the summer. It has been increasing a little bit, so I would say the initial impact has been good.”

In the center-campus business district, Bob’s Mini Mart recently installed a large beer cooler at an expense of several thousand dollars. “I have seen a slight increase in business over the summer, nothing too dramatic yet,” said owner Bob Hooper. “I am hoping to see a larger impact after students and professors are back in the fall. In the next year or so, I do think the Cullowhee area will see more businesses coming in because of this.”

The story is much the same a few doors up Centennial Drive at the Mad Batter. “There has been an increase in our business since the referendum,” said owner Jeanette Evans, who plans to stay open later and expand her menu to include pizza and more evening fare. “Things have been steadier. It used to be a real dead zone during the summer. It has not been a night-and-day transformation, but it has been noticeable, and I fully expect to see an even greater impact once we have our extended hours, we add to our menu, and faculty and students get back in town.”

Also on the commercial strip, Rolling Stone Burrito has obtained its alcohol permit, but had not begun selling alcohol at press time. “We are waiting until closer to the opening of school,” said owner Suzanne Stone. “We want to be sure that we have all of our fall employees in place and totally trained on how to serve alcohol. We are not taking this change lightly at all.” Across N.C. 107, the Catamount Travel Center has added beer to its inventory, and the new package store is setting up shop.

WHAT’S ON TAP?

Meanwhile, rumors about other new businesses coming to Cullowhee are swirling like fine wine in a connoisseur’s glass. Although nothing was definite at press time, several entrepreneurs say they are interested in starting new ventures in the wake of the alcohol vote. Evans of the Mad Batter is among them. “We are talking about opening another business, but there is nothing definite yet,” said Evans, characterizing her plans as in the exploratory phase. “I would like to bring a restaurant/bar to Cullowhee,” she said. “This is where I live. It’s where I work and it’s where I recreate. I’ve had the opportunity to go to other spots in the county, but I didn’t want to. I’m a Cullowhee girl.”

Jeff Neff (left), professor of geology, samples the product of Sylva-based Heinzelmannchen Brewery poured by head brewer Dieter Kuhn (right) during a beer-tasting at Cullowhee’s Mad Batter.

A persistent rumor has a Sylva business formerly known as the Bone Shack, now called Rae’s City Grill, moving to Cullowhee. Owner Bill Picon ’95 confirmed his interest. “We are trying to find a piece of land to open up a wing place and a venue where we could do concerts that could hold about 2,000 people.” Picon’s concept is for a small restaurant/bar adjacent to a larger music hall, similar to Asheville’s Orange Peel, which could host one or two shows a month. “The key is it’s got to be within walking distance of campus,” he said. “We’re probably looking at the post office side of the highway to take advantage of the pedestrian overpass for walking to and from our place.”

Speedy’s Pizza, a longtime WCU favorite that moved to Sylva when that town approved beer sales, may return. Owner Wally Schmidt said he is considering a smaller second restaurant in Cullowhee. “It’s just a thought at this point,” Schmidt said.”We are talking seriously about it, but right now we are just talking. We are in the middle of our decision-making process, and we want to make a decision by the end of the year.”

Sylva-based Heinzelmannchen Brewery also has its eye on expansion, said Sheryl Rudd ’81, company president. “We are doing our best to get into Cullowhee. We are talking with several businesses and staying on their radar, talking about possibilities,” said Rudd, who runs the business with husband and head brewer Dieter Kuhn. “Right now we just offer draught beer. We are not set up to bottle, so we can’t offer our product in stores. And the issue with draught is space for the
kegs and taps.”

The Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative, an informal collective of local beer enthusiasts including seven WCU faculty and staff members, is in the process of becoming a limited liability corporation, which would enable it to sell its product; currently, co-op members brew beer only for themselves and friends. “My dream is to be able to partner with someone in the Cullowhee community on a brew pub,” said co-op founder Sean O’Connell, head of WCU’s Department of Biology. “To be able to brew on premises in Cullowhee would be real neat, and to be able to do so on the banks of the river that gives our brewing co-op its name would be even neater. For that to happen in two years is super-idealistic because we all have full-time jobs doing other things, but within four years is probably quite realistic.”

Heinzelmannchen and the brewing co-op are on the periphery of the region’s burgeoning craft beer industry, with Asheville earning the title of Beer City USA four consecutive years. “It’s been interesting to watch what has happened with the microbrew scene in Asheville, and to see that spreading west with three microbreweries in Waynesville, two in Jackson County and Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City,” O’Connell said. “You could make a strong case for Western North Carolina being a major beer region. It’s exciting to be a part of the region’s growing beer scene, and I hope that we are able to make our cooperative a part of a growing college-town Cullowhee, USA.”

Stone, of the burrito shop, agrees. “I do think this will finally bring Cullowhee more in line with the typical college town vibe,” she said. “I think it will help the energy on campus, with more students hanging around on weekends. I hope we’ll see more quirky local shops and funky local restaurants open up in and around Cullowhee because of this change.”

Not all are convinced, however, that big changes are brewing. “When you have a real college-oriented business, it’s hard to survive during those months when the students are not here,” said West, the real estate agent. “A steady, year-round business is so important. What we need to do to really bring business to this area is to fill this place up in the summer. Then business would take care of itself. Everybody’s dying to open up a business in a college town, but without that year-round clientele, they can’t make it.”

SAFETY FIRST

Although much of the talk around the arrival of alcohol in Cullowhee revolves around economic development and more restaurants for students and faculty, inevitably the conversation turns to safety and legal concerns. Local business owners say they are proceeding cautiously, in part because they believe they will be under the microscope of a county law enforcement agency opposed to the sale of alcohol so close to campus.

“This is a very serious endeavor, and we are determined to handle everything totally by the book and with the utmost care,” said Stone. “Local law enforcement and the university will be looking closely at underage drinking, the use of fake IDs, over-serving intoxicated customers and similar issues. We want to do it right, because making a mistake can cost a small business its license.”

Also pledging to “do it right” is Bob’s Mini Mart, which is adding staff and is putting procedures into place to prevent sales to underage customers. “We have it set up in our cash registers so that when customers buy beer, the clerk has to check their ID and punch in the date of birth before it will ring it up,” said Hooper, who had friends who died in accidents during Waynesville beer runs decades ago.

In Old Cullowhee, owners of Sazon are proceeding cautiously. “My wife and I manage the alcohol ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “We want to be sure customers we are serving are not underage. We check everyone’s IDs to make sure they are old enough if they order a drink. We post any poster or information we get from the university about underage alcohol use and other issues. We want to send the message that, for us, it is not about alcohol. It is about enjoying our food with a nice beer or a margarita. It’s not about getting drunk.”

Some alumni such as Shelton, the 1969 graduate, say they wonder how today’s WCU students will handle the availability of alcohol in close proximity. “When I was in college the drinking age for beer was 18. It was 21 for liquor,” he said. “I can envision an increase in the problem of older students buying for their younger friends, and it will be interesting to see how the university and store clerks deal with that situation, because fake IDs are a lot more realistic than in my day.”

For many, however, the bottom line is that the availability of alcohol closer to campus will decrease the likelihood of long-distance beer runs and intoxicated driving.

“If students are going to consume alcohol – and let’s not kid ourselves, because some of them are going to do so – it definitely is in the best interest of the students to be able to purchase it closer to campus,” said Wooten, the county manager. “Let’s face it – there’s been a lot of consumption of alcohol in that area for a long, long time, just like any college campus.” Wooten also said he will be interested to see if students are going to be price-conscious. “Will they pay a little more for a six-pack at a convenience store at the edge of campus, or will they still drive into town to a grocery store where it may be cheaper?” he said.

In reality, the May referendum doesn’t really change anything except accessibility, said Sam Miller, WCU vice chancellor for student affairs. “Underage consumption of alcohol, binge drinking and intoxicated driving are problems not just on a college campus, but are larger societal issues. That is why we have a wide variety of programs regarding alcohol education,” Miller said. They include mandatory alcohol awareness training for freshmen before the school year begins and the “Party Smart” initiative offered through the Division of Student Affairs.

“Students already had access to alcohol sold in stores and restaurants just a few miles from campus,” Miller said. “The availability of alcohol closer to campus will certainly be more convenient for many students, but we don’t know how or if that will change their behavior. Regardless, WCU will continue to expect that our students are living up to their responsibilities and are good neighbors to Jackson County residents. We will be closely monitoring what effect the increased availability of alcohol in the county has on our student population, and will add programming and take other steps as necessary.”