The Politics of Food

Group Wants Voters to Decide if Retail Beer and Wine Sales Should Be Allowed in The Heights [UPDATED]

In a press release today, a group called the “Houston Heights Beverage Coalition” announced its intention to collect at least 1,500 signatures on a petition to get the issue of beer and wine sales in The Heights on the ballot for the upcoming elections in November. The group has 60 days to obtain the needed signatures in order to accomplish this. If that happens, the City Secretary of the City of Houston will verify the signatures and City Council will call the election for this November.

The vote would be on whether or not to allow retailers in The Heights to sell beer and wine for off-premises consumption. It does not provide for sales of hard liquor, nor would it change the overall designation of the area as “dry.” In other words, bars and restaurants in The Heights would have to continue using the “private club” workaround to sell alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption. The workaround means that customers have to present ID, sign a form and often be issued a “membership card” to be part of the “club” in order to purchase beer, wine, liquor and cocktails.

Way back in 1912, Houston Heights voters held an election to prohibit all alcohol sales. The area has remained “dry” ever since. There have been occasional challenges, such as a 1933 lawsuit brought by a store owner that argued that since the city of Houston had annexed The Heights and wasn’t dry, that meant The Heights shouldn’t be dry, either. The case went to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that a vote would be required to make the area “wet.”

The chair of the coalition is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this," he said. "It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response. 

Updated, 5/19/2016, 9:34 a.m.: We asked H-E-B for two pieces of information via email to their public relations representative. The first was "if H-E-B is part of the PAC that has formed to get The Heights beer and wine sales issue on the November ballot" and the second is whether the inability to sell beer and wine is a "significant economic deterrent for any grocery store to want to build there."

The statement we received back from Cyndy Garza-Roberts of H-E-B's public affairs department in Houston didn't address what we asked about. Instead, we received this:  

"H-E-B is eager to have a presence in the Houston Heights and Garden Oaks communities as we are always looking for optimal growth opportunities that ensure we deliver the best store design and product offering for the community. We are aware of the community’s desire for us to build nearby and of the general rumors in the air. However, at this time it is premature for H-E-B to comment on plans for property acquisition in these areas and will keep the public abreast of any new developments that are sure to move this process forward."

The petitions are already circulating in the Heights, and apparently we're not the only ones curious about who's behind the effort. One reader who signed the petition yesterday sent this:

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back. 

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

That’s a rather impressive success rate. Ultimately, the issue comes down to whether residents of The Heights want a full-fledged grocery store bad enough to allow it to make money selling booze.
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook