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Last dry county in North Carolina will soon sell alcohol

Lilly Knoepp
After the 2021 election, alcohol could soon be available in Graham County.

North Carolina’s last dry county appears it will start selling alcohol soon.

In Tuesday’s election, voters in Graham County narrowly approved seven different ballot questions that would allow for beer and wine to be sold in the county. 

Sophia Paulos has been Graham County's economic development director for five years. She says a lot has changed in the county in that time, such as improved unemployment numbers and new businesses.

Credit Courtesy of Graham County
Graham County Economic Development Director Sophia Paulos shared a snapshot of unemployment numbers in the county compared to five years ago. The number has improved.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, this doesn’t help the local business owners, this is just for out-of-towners that want to open businesses and that is simply not true,” said Paulos.

She believes that alcohol sales will encourage tourists to stay longer in Robbinsville and spend more money in town – which will mean more county occupancy and sales taxes.  

“I think that what the people of Robbinsville decided is that they do not believe that the horror stories of the past will come to be just because beer and wine are available in Robbinsville now,” said Paulos.  

Credit Courtesy of Graham County
Graham County Economic Development Director Sophia Paulos shared a report comparing economic numbers from 2016 to 2021. Sales tax and occupancy tax are both higher this year.

Alcohol hasn’t been sold in Graham County since 1948. (There are exceptions, outlying resorts in the county can sell alcohol.) In the early days of alcohol sales, Paulos says the county wasn’t known as a safe place – and that time is still a part of the memory of many residents.

“If you look at the socioeconomics of that time and that was some of the hardest times in this county. They have just had huge swaths of land bought by the federal government for pennies on the dollar - basically taken from them,” said Paulos. “When you have half the people living in poverty, 20 percent suffering from food insecurity and crime is your number one employer then yes, you are going to have alcohol and substance use problems, like the wild west.”

The alcohol referendum was kicked back and forth between the town and county in 2020 but ultimately didn’t make it on to the ballot. Paulos explained that zoning laws were a big factor as to why the town passed the referendum instead of the county. Paulos says there aren’t many zoning laws in the county so these laws makes it clear that alcohol can only be sold within the town limits.

“That’s something that I think leadership was thinking a lot about,” said Paulos. “I think they were very much concerned about it passing on a county level and ending up being all over the place.”

Some alcohol referendum questions passed by as little as two votes, so results are not official as any outstanding mail-in ballots must still be counted. 

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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