Last October The New York Times called Texas "a patchwork of dizzying gradations of wetness." In Plano, those gradations are apparently so disorienting that residents there can't seem to ease the regulatory tangle that stands between them and a wet whistle. Consider this: Last month, a petition drive in Plano sputtered, failing to put a measure on the ballot in May that would have legalized the sale of wine and beer in grocery stores in the sections of Plano that are dry and permitted diners to gurgle grog in a restaurant without the heinous "club membership" hassle. This is particularly striking when just a couple of weeks after the Plano campaign petered out, the tiny town of Fairview (population 3,600), whose motto is "Keeping It Country," approved similar alcohol referendum petitions that will go before voters in May. The cities of Allen and McKinney were also able to scratch up the necessary signatures for similar alcohol ballot measures.
What happened in Plano, a town equipped with a foodie-centric Central Market and a reasonably vibrant restaurant community? "We weren't able to get into the grocery stores," says Brad Shanklin, president of the Plano Chamber of Commerce, who was spearheading the petition drive. "Central Market would not allow us in either." Shanklin said grocery stores, where he had hoped to get the lion's share of the necessary 20,077 signatures for each petition, froze him out. As a result, he estimates his collection came in a whopping 5,000 to 7,000 signatures shy of the necessary totals. Though he was able to put petition gatherers in Albertson's, Shanklin says Tom Thumb, the most robust grocer in Plano, and Central Market don't permit activities such as signature gathering on their premises because of unionizing concerns. This didn't thwart activists in Allen, who easily secured a 300-signature cushion over the 4,400 they needed for each measure by focusing on Kroger and Albertson's stores. "It makes me glad we hired a consultant," says Andre Dubois of Allen Citizens for Economic Growth, who says the consulting firm Texas Petition Strategies helped pave the way for a signature-gathering drive in that town's grocery stores. McKinney came in with more than 6,000 signatures for each ballot measure, significantly more than the 5,037 the city needed.
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But all is not lost for Plano. Shanklin says that in the next go-around he will work from registered-voter lists and go door to door for signatures instead of parking gatherers in high-traffic businesses, a campaign that will begin in mid-August to qualify for a February 2005 ballot. But before that begins, Shanklin will have to fill his coffers. Of the $32,000 he collected for his latest signature-gathering exercise, only $3,500 remains. Apparently it costs a lot of money to go from a patchwork of dizzying gradations of wetness to just plain wet and dizzy.