Monday, July 7, 2008

State of Drinking: Alcohol woven into small-town economy

The bar at Coppershot, a jumping downtown nightspot, gleams.

Owner Scott Hanadel has plenty of help keeping the bar's copper surface polished: the elbows of all those drinkers.

The popular bar frequently is packed, especially when there's live entertainment -- no small feat in a town with so much competition for a drinker's dollar.

Including restaurant bars and those inside other gathering spots such as the local VFW post, New London has one bar for roughly every 420 residents. That ranks among the higher numbers nationwide but is not unusual by Wisconsin standards. A 1990 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that Wisconsin was home to seven of the country's top 10 metropolitan areas with the most bars per capita.

Hanadel has no doubt what would happen if the town ever ran dry.

"It would die," he said. "There would be no reason to come downtown unless you wanted to catch a movie. This town would be a ghost town."

In Wisconsin, where drinking is inextricable from the fabric of life, alcohol informs not only the culture but also the economy. Nowhere is that more evident than in the state's small towns.

Notwithstanding the well-documented human and financial toll of alcohol abuse, which can be overwhelming, officials say the production and sale of alcohol infuses Wisconsin's economy by providing livelihoods, generating revenue and breathing life into city centers that otherwise would wither.

Such dichotomy makes for a complicated and sometimes rancorous debate.

Liquid assets

Wisconsin's drinking establishments rang up $598 million in sales in 2002, the last year for which full figures are available, according to the 2002 Economic Census. There were 14,038 people employed in alcohol-serving capacities, census data show.

Currently, Wisconsin has 10,571 drinking establishments that operate with beer-liquor licenses, according to Jessica Iverson, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. That includes standalone bars, restaurants, recreational venues such as bowling alleys and hotel lounges.

Another 1,760 operate with beer-only licenses. The vast majority of those are restaurants, Iverson said.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Beer Institute reports that the brewing industry was responsible for more than 30,000 jobs in Wisconsin in 2006. The industry had a $3.35 billion impact on the state when based on brewers, wholesalers and retailers, the survey reports.

Wisconsin ranks near the top for per capita alcohol consumption. In 2005, Wisconsin ranked fifth, averaging 2.92 gallons of booze sold per person.

Terry Harvath, president of the Outagamie County Tavern League, said downtowns in many small towns likely would fizzle after dark without alcohol.

"When people do go out for entertainment, I think drinking and dancing goes with it," Harvath said. "When you can cover all aspects of somebody going out -- if you can serve food, the beer and the liquor, and wine at the same time -- you're cornering the market."

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