A huge wave of thousands of new residents from all over the country are moving to Columbia County with the addition of the U.S. Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon and the expansion of other companies in the area.
Many of these newcomers are extremely impressed with the county’s low cost of living, the thriving real estate market, the quality school system and the incredible recreational amenities.
However, some new residents can’t help but notice that something is missing: There are no bars in Columbia County.
“People are shocked when I tell them,” Russell Wilder, owner of Top Shelf Cigar & Tobacco Shoppe on Columbia Road, said shaking his head.
“I have people come in here all the time who are new to the area and tell me, ‘Man, you know what would be good in here? If you could sell some bourbon or draft beer.’ And I have to tell them, ‘Well, I can’t.’”
The look on the faces of some of his new customers is total and complete disbelief, Wilder said.
“When I say, ‘The only place you can buy a drink is in a restaurant. There are no bars in Columbia County,’ they are in shock,” Wilder said, chuckling. “They’ll say, ‘There are no bars in Columbia County? What?’”
Wilder has had this same conversation with newcomers over and over again.
There is always a long pause, as the new resident begins thinking about the different areas and shopping centers around Columbia County, he said.
Under the county’s current alcohol ordinance, only a restaurant with a full-service kitchen that derives at least 50 percent of its total annual gross sales from the sale of food is allowed to sell and consume alcohol.
But Wilder believes it’s time for the Columbia County Board of Commissioners to consider updating their views and the county’s ordinance regarding local bars.
“I just feel like it is time to move forward,” he said. “We do so much stuff that is really — the way I see it, as being an old Southern boy — very progressive. For example, we are building all of this stuff like The Plaza at Evans Towne Center to lure people in and let them know that this is a really cool place to live, but you can’t have a bar?”
The two just don’t add up, Wilder said.
“We get so many folks now who come from big cities or from up North where the alcohol rules have been different for 40 years,” Wilder said. “I remember people who moved here four or five years ago and they were baffled that they couldn’t even buy a six-pack on Sunday. Well, we changed that to accommodate the newcomers to our area and make them feel welcome. I think it’s time to look at the county’s alcohol ordinance as well.”
Over the past few months, Wilder said he has spoken to a few members of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners about the current alcohol ordinance. After some brief discussions with county officials, he realized that change won’t come easy.
“I talked to Chairman Ron Cross and I asked him if there was the political will to change the ordinance, and he told me that he felt like there wasn’t,” Wilder said. “Ron felt like it is not something we want to do in this community right now. He said, ‘Look, I’m not for it. So talk to the other commissioners.’”
When asked directly about the current alcohol ordinance by a Metro Spirit reporter, Cross acknowledged that he wasn’t in favor of altering what currently exists on the books.
“I do not think the ordinance needs to be revisited, but it is up to the commission to decide,” Cross said.
“The 50/50 rule seems to have worked fine as we, in the past, do not desire bars as such. Folks who want to just have a drink can use many establishments that have bar service as well as food service.”
And, despite Wilder’s experiences with newcomers who are surprised that Columbia County doesn’t have any bars, Cross said he believes the county’s existing alcohol ordinance makes the area more attractive to new residents.
“On the contrary, I think the ordinance encourages new residents since we do not have the problems usually associated with bars and so called ‘beer joints,’” Cross said. “As you recall, Columbia County was ‘dry’ for many years after other counties had alcohol sales and it took several attempts to pass the original liquor ‘by the drink’ referendum.”
Cross said he has no desire to open the door to bars in Columbia County.
“Changing the ordinance will surely encourage some new business, but not necessarily the kind we encourage. I feel that it would be a negative,” he said.
“The current ordinance is, in my opinion, a good balance of food and alcohol. However, if the commission wishes to revisit the actual percentages of each, that would be fine.”
Wilder has also brought up the subject with commissioners Gary Richardson and Bill Morris, and while they were open to talking about the alcohol ordinance, it seemed they were also somewhat reluctant to make any drastic changes, he said.
“I found out that, regrettably, the sheriff is against bringing down the 50 percent food requirement,” Wilder said, referring to Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle. “That is one of our stumbling blocks. In Georgia politics, the sheriff is always one of the most politically powerful people in every county in the state. My father told me that when I was a young man and it’s true. The sheriff wields some serious political influence.”
One of the main concerns about reducing the 50 percent food sales requirement in order to sell and consume alcohol is that some fear it may increase the number of drunk drivers on Columbia County’s roadways, Wilder said.
“An increase in DUIs is one of the biggest concerns that I’ve heard from folks,” Wilder said. “Not just politicians, but anybody that you bring this up to that is against changing the ordinance. I understand the concern, but I hate to tell them, if people are going out of the county to drink and they live here, they are driving back on our roads drunk. I really don’t think there will be an increase in DUIs if bars are allowed to open in Columbia County. I really don’t.”
After all, Wilder pointed out that there are a lot of customers that go into local restaurants such as Mellow Mushroom or The Pizza Joint just to sit at the bar and have a few drinks after work.
“When I go out to eat, I will see people come in, sit at the bar, have a glass of wine or a bourbon or a few beers or whatever and they go home,” Wilder said. “They may or may not eat anything. Those are the same people that would probably be customers of anybody who would open a bar in Columbia County.”
Another major concern for some commissioners he has spoken with about the alcohol ordinance is the kind of bars or nightclubs that would want to open their doors in Columbia County, Wilder said.
“The commissioners that I’ve talked to who are against it or concerned about it is they don’t want honky-tonk bars that could be disruptive or result in bar fights,” Wilder said. “But I really don’t think that’s what we will see if bars allowed here because the majority of citizens are middle class and upper-middle class people in the Evans area. A honky-tonk wouldn’t survive because it wouldn’t be patronized.”
Instead, Wilder believes a classy piano bar or cigar bar would do quite well in a good location like The Plaza at Evans Towne Center.
“Here we are going to have a beautiful, new cultural center and we are working on The Plaza that I think is going to be kind of similar to Surrey Center,” Wilder said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place at the top of The Plaza where you could go upstairs and have a cigar and enjoy a glass of wine?”
While it may sound like Wilder is considering opening up a cigar bar himself if the ordinance is changed, he insists that’s not his purpose behind discussing the issue.
“I may or may not be the one to open up something like that. I’m not necessarily looking at it for me,” Wilder said. “I just think it is an adjustment that we need to make as we bring all these folks here to Columbia County.”
Columbia County’s government needs to evolve along with its changing population, Wilder said.
“Everybody is so happy in the government, saying, ‘Look at how much we are growing!’” Wilder said. ”Well, we are not growing Southern folks from Augusta, anymore. These are sophisticated city folk from Chicago, New York and Baltimore. They are used to having the option of enjoying a drink at a local bar.”
“That’s normal for the Northeast and big cities, but here in the South, we’ve been Bible Belt-dominated for so long. We need to at least have an open discussion about the current ordinance.”
If, after discussing the ordinance, the majority of residents still don’t want to allow bars in Columbia County, Wilder said he will simply accept that fact.
“That’s what I like about a Republican form of government,” Wilder said. “When it works properly, local people should be able to make decisions on what kind of community they want to live in. So, if the residents of Columbia County don’t want bars here, I don’t have to agree with it, but if I choose to live here, I am going to have to go along it.”
Back in 2004, when Wilder first opened Top Shelf Cigar & Tobacco Shoppe, he understood the county’s ordinance and its current restrictions.
“I didn’t buy a bigger building than I did because I knew the rules that I couldn’t have a bar,” Wilder said. “I also knew that I’ve got to have 85 percent of my sales from tobacco to allow smoking on my premises because the county’s smoking ordinance is a lot more restrictive than the statewide ordinance. So I have two different ordinances working against me.”
Ever since his business opened more than 12 years ago, Wilder points out that Columbia County has grown and changed a lot.
“Back then, it was a county of almost 100,000 people, but now we are almost at 150,000,” he said. “As we continue to grow, we need to explore new options. That is one of the things, if you look at Augusta right now, they are making a lot of neat changes to attract new residents to the downtown area. There is private money being used to develop apartments and condos and things like that because that is the environment that so many of these new people are used to living in. I worry that we, in Columbia County, are at risk of losing those people if they know that they can come home from work, go to their flat in downtown Augusta, change their clothes, walk downstairs and walk two blocks to a bar or a cigar bar and get a drink. I would like to see us stay competitive for those people moving to our area.”
While Wilder appreciates the efforts that Augusta is making to attract some of the new residents to the downtown area, he insists he doesn’t want that kind of bar scene in Columbia County.
“In Augusta, they have a vibrant nightlife, but that’s not necessarily the scene that I want to see here,” Wilder said. “That’s more where the young crowd hangs out. They are going to downtown Augusta because that’s their kind of music and their kind of bars. However, I think in an upscale community like Evans, something like a piano bar or cigar bar would be great.”
And the younger crowd would still want to go to downtown Augusta for its nightlife, he said.
“They won’t want to go to a piano bar with me and my wife and all of our friends,” Wilder said, laughing. “They don’t want to go hang out with their parents, I assure you.”
If nothing else, Wilder would like there to be at least an open discussion about the current alcohol ordinance in Columbia County.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure the will is there,” he said. “But, in talking with people in the development authority, that is a missing component that makes it harder to sell Columbia County to businesses moving to this area.”
“We are still seen as a little country town. We are country folk who are saying, ‘We don’t want no liquor or bars in our town!’”
That’s probably not the kind of image Columbia County wants to send to new residents moving into the area, he said.
“Over the course of the next year, I would like to see us at least look at this issue,” Wilder said. “Let’s put it out there on the table and say, ‘Let’s change it,’ or ‘It’s not time yet.’ Either way, let’s not ignore it. I believe it’s time to have an open debate about it and hear what the people have to say.”