By Jacob Dick
Every September, Lake Cumberland Poker Run brings a surge of boaters to the docks and marinas of Russell County, Kentucky. Spectators and competitors alike crowd the concrete boat ramp with trucks and bright-colored power boats to load supplies and cases of beer aboard to take across the lake.
The veteran weekend warriors come prepared with all of the beer and booze they will need for their weekend anchored to the high rocks of a party cove, like 76 Falls. A beer run would involve a 35-mile trip out of Russell County to the nearest liquor store — out of the question when darting chaotically around the lake collecting poker cards to beat other players’ hands.
Russell County, home to Wolf Creek Dam and numerous summer lake parties, is one of the 39 counties in Kentucky that are considered “dry”, meaning there are no legal alcohol sales within the county. Like most of the counties in this area of southern Kentucky, Russell County is a rural place of modest population with less than 18,000 people according to a census estimate from 2014. That doesn’t mean this small community stays small all year around. Over 3 million people visited Russell County in 2012, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ last released estimate, spending more than $44 million on their travel.
The numerous closed shops and weathered boat storages in the more secluded areas of the county’s lakefront, like the community of Eli, raise some questions about where all that money is going. The median income of people from Russell County is more than $6,000 less than the state average of $43,036 and 27 percent of the population are below the poverty level.
A new public action group, Revive Russell, believes the gap between tourist’s dollars and the county economy can bridged through alcohol sales. The group is circulating a petition for a vote to let the lake county go wet.
The group’s headquarters can be found on the end of Main Street, Russell Spring’s oldest row of commercial property. Past the brick-lined store fronts of pawn shops, consignment stores and a shoe store, the group has found a home in a closed diner/candy store previously called The Rusty Spring. The original white sign with swirling font still hangs over the entrance where glowing neon lights and weekly specials were posted. Now there is only a real estate sign, numerous posters and slogans for Revive Russell and an ad for raffle tickets for a house boat weekend on the lake.
Inside there are a few tables and chairs where volunteers talk to potential signers or make phone calls to voters. Their voices echo off the rugged wood floors and rattle around the open room.
Tony Brummett, spokesperson for the group, can be seen behind a long table in the center of the room discussing tax revenue percentages with the owner of a local restaurant. Brummett said that allowing alcohol sales can benefit the county in ways that reach farther than new restaurants or bars.
“This isn’t about building a Burger King, or something like that,” Brummett said. “We are talking about millions of dollars for the community.”
The group has six months to obtain signatures from at least 25 percent of the total number of registered voters in order trigger a special election in January. If voters decide in favor of sales, the city of Jamestown and Russell Springs would be responsible for deciding regulations, as well as implementing rules set by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
When he explains his position, Brummett likes to reference Russell County’s neighbor Pulaski County, which recently decided to allow alcohol sales. The city of Somerset in Pulaski collected $747,900 last year in regulatory fees last year alone. Brummett believes that cities like Russell Springs should be following suit in order to raise more tax money to improve infrastructure.
“Everything we are doing here has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol,” Brummett said. “For us, this is a community issue.”
Not everyone that lives in this small community agrees that alcohol will be the answer to the county’s problems. Allen Gosser is a resident of Russell Springs who thinks bringing alcohol to Russell County could be harmful to his community.
“Alcohol isn’t going to be the answer to everyone’s problems like most of us think,” Gosser said. “It’s harmful to families for more than moral and religious reasons.”
Brightly colored pamphlets that juxtaposition an image of a teddy bear with facts about alcohol’s contribution to domestic violence are stacked across his mother’s kitchen table. At the bottom of each is a tagline inviting readers to visit the Facebook page of a group called Keep Russell Co. & Our Families Safe.
Gosser is in charge of this group’s social media efforts and is planning to help organize a booth for the group at the Russell Springs Christmas Parade in order to inform people about the impending vote.
While supporters and opponents debate the validity of bringing alcohol to the county less political individuals have found a way to sidestep the argument altogether.
Kim Little and her friend, Morgan Antle, stand next to a blue barrel that is sporting a large pyramid of beer cans. They are pouring room temperature Bud Light into identical red solo cups before they enter a sheet-metal building.
“I had some cups so we might as well fill up now,” Little said. “It will save us a trip back outside.”
They toss their cans onto the pile and walk inside to pay their $7 to a jovial looking older man behind a plywood desk. He waves them through without a glance at the cups and turns to the next guests through the door with their own red containers of booze.
In this metal barn turned underground dancehall known as the Red Solo Cup, people come to see live music or dance on the unfinished concrete floor every Saturday. A country/southern rock band called No Decent is playing tonight and the local crowd has come out in full force.
The crowd is mostly older folks who’ve come to socialize and line dance to a bluesy version of “Wagon Wheel”. There are a few twenty-somethings mixed in that take over the dance floor when the band takes a break and the DJ plays “Cha Cha Slide.”
Another Saturday night in Russell County passes and everyone seems to enjoy themselves in the modern day speakeasy near the county line. For a night, there is no discussion of rising unemployment, car fatalities, or untapped tax revenues. There are only people talking, laughing, and occasionally gossiping about their favorite local celebrities.
Update: On January 16, Russell County voters decided to allow alcohol sales in the county. The final tally was 3,833 in favor and 3,423 against. More than half the county’s voters cast a ballot in the special election.