Hearing pits academia, churches versus business

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- Hours before the city commission voted to deny businessman Alex Rowe's application for a liquor license Tuesday, the elected body heard a spirited debate between representatives of Albany State University, the church community and the business community whose interests have all seemingly collided in this issue.

At a pre-denial hearing Tuesday, attorneys for the city of Albany, businessman Alex Rowe and Albany State University argued their positions before the commission -- which included testimony from community members, ASU officials, academic professionals and members of law enforcement.

City Attorney Nathan Davis and ASU Attorney Nyota Tucker called witnesses on behalf of the city to help support their contention that Rowe's store would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood if allowed to open.

ASU President Everette Freeman was the first to speak during the hearing and reiterated his position that a package store at that location would "adversely affect" the university and community.

"If it were an establishment that served food as well as alcohol, we could likely support it," Freeman said. "But an establishment that has as its sole purpose the sale of liquor is neither wanted nor needed ... I urge you to hold to your decision."

On cross examination Rowe's attorney, Christopher Cohilas, quizzed Freeman about the university's zero-tolerance alcohol policy and whether students were allowed to bring or buy alcohol on campus during any events and whether Freeman was aware of Big Daddy's Lounge, which is located one lot over from where Rowe wants to put his store at 301 E. Oglethorpe Blvd.

Natalie Thomas was also called to testify before the commission.

Thomas is a Family Nursing Practitioner at Albany State University and was called to speak to a report provided by ASU that outlines the health, academic and behavioral risks associated with student alcohol use.

ASU professor Glenn Zuern gave testimony based on his experience in criminal justice and behavior. Zuern told commissioners that that there was strong connection between alcohol abuse and crime, saying that "Albany has enough liquor stores against title pawn stores."

Darton Economics Professor Aaron Johnson told the commission that in determining whether to grant the license to Rowe, the commission must weigh the interest of both the business and the needs of the community.

While Johnson pointed to the positives of opening a new business -- increase in jobs, revenues, sales and property taxes -- he said that the social impact of the negatives the business will bring -- increasing pressure on addicts, increases in crime and the workload for police and prosecutors, and a threat to students at ASU who rely on walking for transportation -- likely outweigh Rowe's right to operate the business.

Albany Mayor Willie Adams asked Johnson about the Winery -- a package store located across the street from Darton College -- and whether he shares the same view about the negative impact of alcohol on academic behavior. In response, Johnson said that it would likely have a negative impact in 10 to 15 years as Darton expands.

ASU student Judy Jones then said that Rowe declined to give her a donation when she was trying to help athletes compete in the junior Olympics and the Rev. Lorenzo Heard, from Second Greater Mt. Olive Baptist Church, reiterated earlier statements asking the commission to keep the liquor store out of East Albany.

Cohilas called two witnesses -- Chuck Darsey of Darsey Oil Company who told commissioners he welcomed a new business next to his on East Oglethorpe along with the jobs it would bring and Dan Ricketson, a private investigator who showed commissioners a video of supposed drug dealing going on the parking lot of Big Daddy's Lounge.

Rowe himself addressed the commission, asking that they grant the license, saying that his liquor store on South Slappey Boulevard has had little to no negative interactions with police. He promised to strongly monitor his store in East Albany if opened.

In his closing statement, Cohilas said that Rowe merely wants to be treated fairly.

Pointing to Rowe's alcohol license application, Cohilas said that it was telling that Albany's police and city agencies had investigated Rowe and his application and "signed off" on it, giving their approval.

"When a legislative body defers to a person's preference rather than use a consistent policy, you get inequitable results," Cohilas told commissioners. "All we're asking is that we be treated the same as everyone else."

Davis and Tucker stood by the testimony presented during the hearing, with Tucker adding only information to support their contention that should Rowe sue -- a concern for Mayor Willie Adams -- there is case law decided by the Georgia Supreme Court they feel would guide the court to rule in the city's favor.

"The court has ruled that the cumulative effect of these establishments in itself can be used as a reason for denial," Tucker said.