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TOWN EXPECTS HARMONY AFTER VOTE ON ALCOHOL

Booze or no booze is the question residents of this rural Chautauqua County town face.

But don't say the town of 2,300 is divided, several residents caution. There might be a difference of opinion, but things will smooth over after Election Day when residents vote on whether to overturn the town's ban on liquor sales, they said.

At least they hope so.

But there is organized opposition that warns the town is "under attack" by alcohol.

Nonsense, say supporters. Many residents drink; they would just be able to buy it in town instead of driving about seven miles to the nearest bar or three or four miles to the nearest store.

Harmony has been "dry" -- meaning the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited -- since shortly after voters repealed Prohibition in 1933. It is one of only 16 dry towns in the state, three of them in Chautauqua County (Clymer and Mina are the others), according to the state Liquor Authority.

Over the years, there have been at least four attempts to lift the ban, the latest in 1986 when a proposition to allow the sale of beer in stores was rejected, 378-237.

The new attempt is spearheaded by a couple who hope to open a restaurant in the small Village of Panama and want to include a bar.

"We don't want to open a drinking establishment, but a restaurant where you can get a drink," Thomas Dole said.

"We wouldn't do anything to make this a bad town," added his wife, Grace.

Dole gathered 231 signatures on petitions that put the issue -- actually involving five separate questions -- on the Nov. 4 ballot.

A no vote would mean the Doles would look for something else to do with the long-vacant former pizzeria and grocery store they purchased in June.

Dole, a self-employed contractor who has lived in Harmony all his life, said he plans to spend $30,000 or $40,000 -- not including his own labor -- opening the Rock House. Named in memory of the former Rock House Hotel in the town, he envisions a casual dining spot that also would give Panama's tiny business district a much-needed shot in the arm.

"You can't get a sandwich around here in the evening," Dole said. "But there's no profit margin (without a bar)."

"People have told us they would like to have someplace to go without having to drive 15 miles," Mrs. Dole added.

The Doles said they expect to close the bar by 11 p.m. and perhaps midnight on weekends.

"We're not interested in being around until 2 in the morning," Mrs. Dole said.

Also, size would prevent having any live entertainment and it would be air conditioned so the doors would be kept closed for those who worry about excessive noise.

"You will find alcohol in most of the homes here," Dole said. "But I think there's kind of a not-in-my-back-yard attitude (toward a bar)."

But you won't find alcohol in the home of the Rev. Steve Wiggers, pastor of the Panama United Methodist Church, which has become the meeting place of a concerned citizens group that has sent out one "warning" and plans others.

"We've probably got 25 or 30 people from throughout the community and we want to inform people," Mr. Wiggers said last week.

The warning letter outlines the dangers of alcohol abuse and alerts readers to the propositions that will be on the ballot.

Of course, town people, including young people, drink, Mr. Wiggers agreed.

"But we hope that less availability translates into less abuse."

And if residents vote to go "wet," what will become of the citizens group?

They haven't talked about that, he said.

It's not very difficult to find a mix of opinions.

At Julia's Restaurant in Panama, Gordon Wheeler said the town "is peaceful and quiet the way it is and should stay that way."

He added that he doesn't drink.

Sitting next to him at the table was Michael Ford, who said he intends to vote yes.

"I think it would be a good way to boost the economy," he said.

Youngsters always seem to find a way to get beer and having someplace local to go would reduce the amount of driving after drinking, said Ford, an auto mechanic.

"But I don't think it's that big of an issue that people won't speak to each other after the vote," said Ford, who drinks.

Wheeler agreed. "We've got better things to argue about," he said of his relationship with Ford.

Restaurant owner Julia Nelson said she is torn.

"I like the idea of a dry town," she said. "But we need to put some life back into this town."

Mrs. Nelson said that if approved by voters, she would likely sell beer for off-premise consumption out of the store part of her business.

Town Supervisor Joe Edwards declined to say how he intends to vote, but echoed the sentiment that harmony will return once the issue is decided.

"There weren't any stones thrown the last time," he said.

Five questions will be on the ballot, and Dole acknowledged he probably made the issue more complicated than it needs to be. To save legal fees, he used the same wording as was on the Town of Mina ballot from 1990 when residents voted to remain dry. It includes propositions involving sales in hotels and summer hotels, neither of which are in Harmony.

The key propositions are No. 2, which would allow sales for on-premise consumption, such as in a bar, and No. 3, which would allow sales for off-premise consumption, such as a store.

Voters could approve one and not the other.

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