A survey was available to the town on bylaw 313-12, the restriction of liquor sales hours. Less than one per cent of the population responded. That is less than 60 people. That would say, perhaps the citizens of Ponoka don’t have a problem with the current hours of our liquor outlets. Yet council is going ahead with second reading of this bylaw.
The latest reason is they want liquor stores to play on a level field. When did the field get so out of kilter? The mayor and council have said they believe in free enterprise, yet they want to limit the ability of these enterprises to operate. It’s been stated over and over again, the liquor stores in this town are closed at latest 11 p.m. Only the two hotels are open to sell liquor after that hour. The liquor stores in this town are allowed by provincial law to stay open until 2 a.m. but they don’t, because there isn’t enough business — their decision, not town council’s, not the provinces. That is free enterprise, restricting the two hotels is not.
Let’s go back several months. At first reading of the bylaw, CAO Brad Watson was asked about the wording of the new bylaw. He stated it was the same as Wetaskiwin’s except the name Ponoka, would be cut and pasted wherever the word Wetaskiwin was. I asked the mayor about that at the Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon, to which he responded, the town of Ponoka would save thousands of dollars in legal costs by doing it this way. We save money and we have a new bylaw. I said Wetaskiwin’s problems are not ours, to which Mayor Henkelman said, well we would just change the wording. So much for saving thousands.
At that same meeting the Mayor said we need the bylaw because of the overtime to the RCMP while working on impaired driving charges. Ponoka averaged two impaired charges a week last year. Some of those were people driving on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton. How does that have anything to do with the hours of the Ponoka liquor outlets? Six weeks later, Staff Sgt. Cameron Chisholm stood up at a public meeting and proclaimed, “Welcome to the impaired driving capital of Canada” and our mayor and council members didn’t as so much make a peep. How much damage to our reputation did that cause? This was after all, national news, being reported as far as the Maritimes. Who wants to open an industry in a town where everyone is a drunk and yet there wasn’t one word from our mayor or council to clarify the sergeant’s statements.
The stats the staff sergeant used at that meeting have not been made public. Out of 109 impaired charges laid in 2012, how many were .08, and how many were 24- hour suspensions? Another question on the statistics is, out of 109 charges laid, how many people were actually stopped? Three hundred; 1,000? How much manpower and how many hours in a week are concentrated on impaired driving? If council has those stats they certainly aren’t sharing them.
So now our mayor and council have come up with yet another explanation for this restricted liquor hours bylaw: the level playing field excuse. That is now the fifth different reason for this bylaw. Can any of the councillors or the mayor explain how limiting the hotels’ ability to operate under their provincially issued licenses that levels the playing field? As stated earlier, the liquor stores close at 10 and 11 p.m., because there isn’t enough commerce at that time of night for them to stay open. The hotels on the other hand are open to offer shift workers and late night people, the opportunity to purchase liquor, just as the 7-11 stays open late to offer chicken. Has council considered it may be an unfair playing field for KFC and maybe 7-11 should be told to shut down the chicken line at 10 p.m.?
It was not that long ago when Ponoka was a real going concern. On Saturday afternoons, families came to Ponoka to shop for clothes, shoes, groceries; the women grabbed the household items and the men got together at the downtown beer parlors and to catch up on the latest news. The downtown then was alive. Now the downtown is a mere shadow of its former self, an area of empty buildings and old memories. Gone are the days of bars being full by the early afternoon and busy through the night. Most old hotels throughout this province rely on the sale of liquor for off premises consumption to keep their doors open and their staff employed; the vast majority of it late at night. We accept that as the level playing field. Anything else would be considered an unfair restriction.
Maybe the bigger picture for our mayor and council members is to quit saying they are free enterprise and do something to prove our town is. Bring in industries and careers opportunities for our young people. Strive to give Ponoka a future. If the towns around us can grow into cities, show us your vision of what can be, so Ponoka can become part of that fraternity.
Mayor Henkelman, be open, be honest and truly be free enterprise. A vote of yes on bylaw 313-12 will be a confirmation that Ponoka is a restricted enterprise town, with only limited opportunities.