GUN BARREL CITY - Sometimes news about a small town feud can travel an awfully long way as was evidenced by the New York Times publishing a story today about Gun Barrel City's recent referendum on late-night alcoholic beverage sales in restaurants.
Probably none of the city's residents who were involved in the bitter fight over extending alcoholic beverage sales in local restaurants to 2 p.m. ever dreamed their little Cedar Creek Lake town's liquor battle would wind up as an item of interest to readers in other states' big cities. But for better or worse that has happened, leaving some residents and officials to wonder what sort of impact that might have on Gun Barrel City.
Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Webster said it is hard to say whether the longish feature story published in the Texas section will have any effect on the city, even though it is bound to be read from coast-to-coast on the Internet. He acknowledged there had been significant discussion on Facebook about a big city newspaper writer being in town to write a story.
"I don't know if it is good or bad for the city because I don't know how many people here will read it," said Webster, a proponent of the successful measure to extend the hours who had not yet read the New York Times story. "I don't know if it will make any difference."
The newspaper writer portrayed the liquor battle as one typical of small towns in Texas, a scenario that likely would amuse residents in big cities who are unfamiliar with such controversies.
That characterization of Gun Barrel City and its recent liquor battle would be a reasonable one, Webster acknowledged.
"It is the Bible Belt," he noted.
Webster said the biggest surprise to him was that the New York Times sent a writer to interview Gun Barrel City residents and write a story about the liquor battle that pitted five council members against Mayor Dennis R. Wood.
"They must have been short on news," said Webster of the story that goes into significant detail about how divisive the issue has been in the community. "I guess if anything it will put Gun Barrel City on the map for people who have never heard of it."
The writer interviewed Mayor Wood, who had opposed extending the hours even though it meant sealing a deal to bring a new Applebee's restaurant to town that would create 75 new jobs in a community hit hard by unemployment. Even though the extension would also result in $80,000 in new sales tax revenue for the city, Wood and his supporters who attend the same Baptist church opposed it on moral and public safety grounds.
"The mayor actually let his religious beliefs take precedent over jobs for the city and increased sales tax revenue," said Webster, who noted five members of the council overrode Wood's veto of the measure twice before the mayor and his supporters presented a petition calling for the Nov. 8 referendum.
The newspaper writer also interviewed Huddle House manager Linda Whitworth, who opposed extending the hours, and Rita's Club co-owner Rob Rea, who supported the extension, noting that the two reportedly got into a discussion in the restaurant that turned heated enough for the police to be called.
Webster said the voters' overwhelming mandate in the 477 to 262 vote to extend the hours showed that the council members represented the majority of the town's citizens.
"We believe in separation of church and state," Webster said.
Webster said that one of the ironies of the liquor battle was that the mayors of Mabank and Tool signed a local newspaper ad urging that the hours not be extended in Gun Barrel City. Then, Gun Barrel City officials learned a representative of the City of Mabank reportedly called Applebee's suggesting the restaurant be built there instead, he said.
"That was a stab in the back," Webster said.
Webster said that that the controversy about the liquor battle is far from over, noting that a group of residents are intent on making sure Mayor Wood does not serve another term. They would have forced a recall election before Wood is scheduled to appear on the ballot again in May 2012, but it was too late for the city to schedule one, he said.
"It's far from over," Webster said. "No one is forgetting about it."
But the mayor told the New York Times reporter that he is determined to run for re-election, and that he also plans to continue his fight against what he views as unsavory influences. Wood told the reporter his next target will be Las Vegas-style slot machines that are common sites in Gun Barrel City businesses because he believes they are illegal.
And if the mayor gets his way, that is likely to bring about the type of battle that Gun Barrel City residents thought they would never see.
Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Webster pictured below.