The southeastern Utah city of Blanding will decide this week whether to maintain its 50-year-old prohibition on booze or allow the sale of liquor as a way to boost tourism.
While the issue may seen controversial to outsiders, voters in the “dry town” seem indifferent, says City Councilman Robert Ogle.
There have been no campaign signs, flyers or social media pages for — or against — the issue, said Ogle, who also is running for re-election this year.
“I‘ve been campaigning, knocking on doors, and no one has mentioned it to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “I can‘t begin to predict what is going to happen.”
The issue, he added, is “absolutely without passion.”
That’s a change from the previous five decades, when the lack of booze has pitted conservative residents against those interested in enhancing tourism and development.
In fact, economic development was one of the reasons the Blanding City Council decided earlier this year to put a question on the Nov. 7 ballot, asking residents if they are in favor of beer and wine sales within city limits.
For a small city, with 3,500-plus residents, it’s an important decision. The city has banned alcohol sales since 1967. There were attempts in 1973, 1983 and, again, in 1988 to reverse the prohibition, but all proved unsuccessful.
Because it’s a midterm election, with just municipal races and the alcohol proposal on the ballot, it’s difficult to know how many residents will be inspired to vote, said John David Nielson, the San Jan County clerk/auditor.
In addition to mail-in ballots, residents can vote in person on Tuesday at the County Clerk’s Office in Monticello.
“We have been processing ballots as they are mailed in,” Nielson said, but with only a few days before the postmark deadline, the results haven‘t been overwhelming, especially compared to last year, when people were choosing a new U.S. president.
Blanding is one of four cities in San Juan County that ban alcohol sales, according to statistics from the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association.
The towns of Aneth and Navajo Mountain, located within the Navajo Reservation, and White Mesa on the Ute Reservation, also are dry.
Statewide, there are another five dry cities, including Highland, in Utah County; Holden and Scipio, in Millard County; Aurora, in Sevier County; and Hatch in Garfield County.
In Blanding, the closest place to buy beer is Shirt Tail Junction, a convenience store about three miles out of town. The other options are to drive 26 miles south to Bluff or 20 miles north to Monticello, where there is a state liquor store.
As a gateway to many of Utah’s favorite tourist attractions, including Lake Powell, Natural Bridges National Monument, Edge of the Cedars State Park and the new Bears Ears National Monument, Blanding gets thousands of tourists a year staying in hotels and dining at area restaurants. Many of them are surprised and disappointed when they can’t buy alcohol.
Even if the ban is lifted, only a few businesses are likely to take advantage of alcohol sales. Clark’s Market, the main grocery store in town, is part of a Colorado-based chain that includes nine stores, none of which sells alcohol.
There also are only two sit-down restaurants in Blanding: Homestead Steakhouse, whose owners have said they want to lift the ban; and Yak’s Center Street Cafe, which would not benefit from alcohol sales as it is open only for breakfast and lunch, the owner has said.
”People are split 50-50 on the issue,” explained Trisha Eubanks, who works at the Southway Trading Co., a convenience store in Blanding that does not sell beer.
“It‘s something that bothers tourists,” she said. “But if you live here, you’re just used to it.”
Eubanks, who grew up in Las Vegas, said she plans to vote in favor of alcohol sales because it will benefit the city financially.
”A lot of money does go to Bluff because they have alcohol in stores and restaurants,” she said. “Blanding is probably missing out on that income.”