Opinion: Piety vs. Progress

SDN Editor Ryan Phillips weighs in with his opinion on the possibility of changing Starkville's alcohol laws (courtesy)

City officials in Starkville seem to be at an impasse.

The future of the city's downtown entertainment offerings could hinge on tonight's meeting of the Board of Aldermen, but I have a feeling not everyone views it in those terms.

Last Friday's city work session saw aldermen split over the decision to add to the consent agenda for tonight's meeting a motion to discuss having a public hearing on amending Starkville's antiquated alcohol laws.

The proposed changes would allow businesses to sell alcohol within 100 feet of a church - which is in line with state statutes. This is opposed to the 250-foot requirement currently in place.

The proposed changes would also allow beer to be sold with an 8 percent alcohol content while the current restriction sits at 5 percent. Additionally, restaurants and bars would have the ability to sell alcohol up to 1 a.m. each day of the week.

The aforementioned changes could represent a huge financial boon for the local economy, opening the door for a wider range of brew pubs to operate, businesses to serve customers longer and finally give an added attraction for much-needed ridesharing services.

Despite political and ideological hurdles standing in the way, there is an obvious need for change and I think the time is now to show just how forward-thinking Starkville can be.

Downtown is starved for new business. There's no place for men to shop for clothing, but downtown is inundated with a wide range of boutiques, law firms and sweet shops consistently failing to generate diverse foot traffic.

We have a few family restaurants, but in 2017 a bustling downtown should be far removed from the prudish conventions of yesteryear.

It's frustrating for many blue-collar folks who clock out at 10 p.m. every night and find every non-fast food destination closed. This simple policy fix would drastically improve the quality of life in Starkville and wouldn't result in the afterschool PSA stereotype of dangerous drunk drivers on the road at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

I acknowledge, too, church services can be held on Wednesday nights and some assert the change in restrictions would put churchgoers in immediate danger if passed. I want some numbers and figures before I buy into that. We need boosts to tourism dollars and economic development, not fear mongering. If the facts are there, I ask the aldermen propagating this viewpoint to prove it instead of grandstanding.

Our local economic development experts at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership are innovative and creative thinkers, but need the support of the city to help expand the profile of downtown and other potential hotspots in the city.

Keeping more people on the streets longer will ultimately benefit the bottom line for the city, but if a majority of aldermen decide the looks they get in church are more important than the financial needs of the city, then voters and city residents will just have to deal with it.

What are the dissenting aldermen afraid of? They sought to block even the discussion of a public hearing on the matter before allowing any discourse. While the opposed aldermen may prefer the moral high ground, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Do they believe their individual outlooks to be the only one that matters? Do they not believe the public has a right to weigh in on an issue directly impacting their city? I guess the citizens will just have to ask.

Ward 3 Alderman David Little was not in attendance at the work session Friday, thus unable to vote on adding the matter to the consent agenda. But the motion to add the discussion of possibly holding a public hearing was passed on a tie-breaking vote by Mayor Lynn Spruill - who has been outspoken about keeping the town "alive after 5."

I have written several times in the past pleading with city officials to give downtown a much-needed shot in the arm.

When you walk Main Street after 8 p.m., it's a ghost town - especially during the summer months when MSU students are gone. No storefronts are open, no laughter hangs in the air and more importantly, no money is being spent.

I implore our aldermen to allow the matter to be brought to a public hearing and listen close to the wants and concerns of constituents before acting.

This isn't a request to throw support behind turning downtown into a party destination, but a plea to use logic, not your religious conviction, when making a policy decision. Even Jesus enjoyed wine and I bet it was much better than the few choices we have available for purchase in Starkville.

If religious beliefs supersede allowing public discussion in your mind, I want your reasoning as a policymaker laid out in the open tonight. God did not tell you to block public discussion on the matter and you would only be politically posturing to argue otherwise.

Simply saying "God doesn't want this," may have cut it 50 years ago, but this is 2017 and your constituents deserve facts, figures and logic behind your decision to keep the city two decades behind every other college town.

Piety might raise your stock in small town church politics, but it doesn't put food on the table or money in the bank.

Ryan Phillips is the editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Starkville Daily News staff.