No-alcohol laws ebb, but prohibition spirit lives

In 1856, Hannah Jumper reputedly led local women on a bottle-breaking raid of drinking establishments here in Rockport, Mass. Since then, except for one brief period after national prohibition was lifted in 1933, this seaside harbor has been "dry" - no alcohol allowed.

Then earlier this month, Peter Beacham, local antiques appraiser and Rotary Club president, inaugurated the new liquor license of a local inn. Residents voted in April to allow restaurants and inns to acquire liquor licenses (bars and liquor stores remain prohibited). With 55 percent support, the vote provided one more sign of the ebbing dry-town phenomenon, experts say, as more communities search for revenue. The erosion comes despite indications that an on-again, off-again national flirtation with temperance is hanging on.

"We're still in an antialcohol period that really began in the 1980s," says David Hanson, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Potsdam, who has closely tracked alcohol use for decades. "Maybe 15 years ago I saw a survey with questions about availability of alcohol [in which] about 1 in 8 people actually favored prohibition if it were not called that," he says. "The question described prohibition without using that word, and it got a great deal of support."

Keeping towns dry, however, has not.

The votes nearly always occur in alcohol-free municipalities exploring the "wet" alternative, and two-thirds or more pass, says Professor Hanson. "My impression is that when they fail, they tend to fail with a fairly narrow margin," says Hanson. "But many times when they pass, it's with a resounding majority." He speculates that large majorities often reflect the sway of outsiders, and that closer votes are indicative of "more stable" communities. Often these are rural.

Hundreds of counties remain dry, Hanson says. Although the temperance movement of the late 1820s was rooted mainly in the North, most of today's dry communities are in the South. Hanson and others cite Kentucky as a state with a high concentration of antialcohol towns. A few years ago, all but a dozen or so Tennessee counties were dry.

"There are states in which there are wet towns in dry counties," Hanson says. "There have been times when a place would become dry and then become wet again, and back and forth. And after repeal [of Prohibition] in 1933, there were a number of states that elected to remain dry; then there were the larger number that chose to permit a 'local option,' " he adds. The last dry state, Mississippi, went to local option in 1965.

Reasons vary for going dry. Some communities, such as Harvey, Ill., were founded as dry in their charter, according to William Rorabaugh, author of "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition" and a history professor at the University of Washington. The charter includes a provision that if alcohol were ever introduced, the town's property would revert to an original owner. Several similar provisions have been challenged in court and overturned.

Even some resort cities, such as Ocean City, N.J., and Moorhead City, N.C., are dry. Often, local residents want to keep out rowdy visitors, Professor Rorabaugh says.

That Rockport stayed dry for so long - a 1996 challenge failed at a town meeting - makes the Northeastern tourist town, like Ocean City, something of a holdout in its class. Though there are about a dozen dry towns in Massachusetts, Rockport's 7,500 residents rely heavily on out-of-state visitors. Rockport's streets are by no means empty on summer weekends, but tourism revenue slipped beginning around 2001 and has remained flat, even as other area towns have flourished. All variables were eyed - and the dry-town issue stood in high relief.

Much of the debate in this seaport, packed with shops and galleries, fell along predictable lines. Letters to local papers in advance of the vote asked whether selling alcohol would affect the town's safety and "quiet beauty." Opponents reminded voters that tax revenue would flow to state and federal coffers, not Rockport's.

But advocates of liquor sales maintain they never claimed a tax-revenue windfall should be considered part of the allure. The benefits will likely be more peripheral, says Michael Costello, executive director of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

"If there are more people staying in inns as a result of restaurants being able to offer a better experience, and more people coming to Rockport, then there will be money coming to town because [inns] share in the room-tax revenues," he says.

Further, Mr. Costello cites a leveling of the property-tax burden if more commercial taxpayers arrive in town. He also expects an impact in terms of jobs. "Waitressing might become a full-time profession again," he says, "as it has not been in years." Costello sees the addition of alcohol as just part of a larger effort that, he says, must include more parking and rest rooms.

Costello scoffs at the idea some in Rockport put forth - that the town might have leveraged its no-alcohol status as a marketing tool. "That's trying to put a shine on a sneaker," he says, and not understanding the reality of the times.

Near Bearskin Neck, Rich and Ivy Boran pause to watch boats from a sailing school glide into the harbor. The couple, from Framingham, Mass., heard about the Rockport referendum on the 11 o'clock news.

The old law never stopped anyone from drinking here anyway, says Ms. Boran, people just carried in alcohol. The ban was "one of those archaic laws they had to ditch," says her husband.

Ken Porter, who owns both the Roy Moore Lobster Co. and the Fish Shack restaurant here, is optimistic that selling wine with meals will help him compete with restaurants in nearby Newburyport, Ipswich, and Essex.

Perhaps, he and others say, visitors will come to Rockport and stay put.

The Travel Industry Association of America could not confirm whether tourists factor the availability of alcohol into their searches. A new TIA study does make safety the No. 1 consideration for travelers selecting a leisure destination.

Hanson says he understands Rockport's motivation. "A dry area faces an interesting problem," he says. "If they stay dry they're at a disadvantage. It's like a person who doesn't have a high school education. 'Getting the degree' doesn't guarantee any great economic success, because in fact most places are wet, but at least you've got a level playing field."

He also hopes expectations are kept in perspective. "Sometimes places are disappointed," he says, "because they don't suddenly become booming."

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