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Tiny town’s lofty liquor sales leave residents quite baffled

Dana Winson, owner of King and Harts Bar and Grill in Castleford, Idaho, pours “Turtle Shots” for patrons after the turtles races.
Dana Winson, owner of King and Harts Bar and Grill in Castleford, Idaho, pours “Turtle Shots” for patrons after the turtles races.

CASTLEFORD, Idaho – Castleford’s brief Main Street stretch is simple and straightforward.

On one side is a short-order restaurant and cafe, the Baptist church, Duane’s Market and the community center. On the other, two bars stand just yards apart, next to homes with souped-up vehicles parked outside. A few blocks down and across from the community center is Castleford School, home of the Wolves.

It’s a place where residents say people take care of each other and support community events. It’s a town with an agricultural base, one gas pump and a small post office.

And it’s home to surprisingly high liquor sales, according to the Idaho State Liquor Division’s 2010 report.

Sales of state-controlled liquor in Castleford – population 226 – increased from $269 per resident in 2009 to $371 per resident last year. It’s an abnormally high figure during a year that saw south-central Idaho buck a statewide trend of increasing liquor sales. State liquor stores here sold $75.30 worth of booze per resident in 2010, nearly $54,000 less than the $16.1 million sold in 2009.

The state’s approach to liquor control is changing with the times, as more cities allow Sunday liquor sales, and the Legislature granted the Liquor Division’s request to keep more than two dozen of its busiest stores open later, until 9 p.m. And sales are up – $138 million in 2010.

“It’s kind of an urban myth that people drink more when the economy isn’t doing well,” said Jeff Anderson, director of the Idaho State Liquor Division. “The increases we’ve experienced are organic with population growth.”

Per-person liquor sales are highest in areas where more people come to visit. In south-central Idaho, for instance, Ketchum’s liquor outlets racked up $903 in sales per resident. While wealth in Blaine County is high, those region-leading sales figures are more a product of tourism than residents reaching for top-shelf spirits.

But Castleford isn’t a tourist trap. Sure, Balanced Rock Park is nearby, and an annual car show and mud bog has brought in 3,000 to 5,000 people per year since 2006, said Mayor Ryan Blick. The Fourth of July fireworks celebration attracts a few out-of-towners, but that too was started in 2006.

So why is Castleford apparently the drinkingest town in the Magic Valley?

Former Mayor Rita Ruffing had no explanation for last year’s sales increase. When Duane’s Market, which features Castleford’s only liquor store, started selling spirits around nine years ago, she said there was a spike in city coffers. A portion of Idaho’s liquor revenue – $47 million in 2010 – is distributed to cities, counties and other state-funded entities like schools.

“That money goes wherever they can use it. It’s good for Castleford because it’s very short on revenue,” Ruffing said. “I honestly can’t think of why there was an increase in sales. You used to be able to tick them off on your fingers of who was going to be teetering home, but not anymore.”

The increase in booze sales left a few residents scratching their heads as they hashed out possible reasons on Thursday night.

“There’s a lot of Vandals in this community,” joked Mike Bulkley, farmer and president of the Castleford Men’s Club, referring to University of Idaho graduates and fans. “And bars are the only place open on Sunday, but what created last year’s jump is a mystery to me.”

The King and Hart’s Bar and Grill switched owners last June, when Dana Winson bought the bar and changed almost everything but its name. Before Winson took over, the bar was only open a few hours each night. Now she keeps the place open for business every day, and allows patrons to use credit and debit cards, which she said has helped increase sales.

On Thursday, Duane’s Market co-owner and manager Bobby Bohn dropped by the King and Hart’s to deliver drink ingredients for the bar’s first night of turtle racing.

Bohn said the King and Hart’s bar can’t claim the majority of Castleford’s increased liquor sales. In fact, Bohn pegged the mystery spike in sales to a Buhl resident.

“TJ’s in Buhl would come out and buy liquor,” he said. “She would buy as much in one day as people here do in a week.”

Terry Johnson, owner of TJ’s Lounge, confirmed she was the missing puzzle piece on Friday. Johnson said she has been buying most of her liquor from Castleford for the past year and a half in protest of a Buhl city law that prevented the sale of liquor by the drink on Sundays.

“I wanted to sell on Sunday, but Buhl wouldn’t give it to us at the time,” Johnson said. “So I started going to Castleford, because all the money from liquor goes back into that town. If you can’t support local businesses, why should I support the city of Buhl?”

Liquor sales in 4,122-resident Buhl dropped from $110 per person in 2009 to $106 last year. The Buhl City Council recently passed an ordinance to allow Sunday liquor sales, and Johnson said she will decrease the frequency of her trips to Castleford and start buying her bottles in Buhl.

While change at the King and Hart’s may not have been the main driver behind a banner booze year in Castleford, some residents aren’t ready to dismiss it as a factor. Marilyn Abrahams is an afternoon regular at the bar, and said Winson’s changes have made all the difference.

“This place was dark before Winson and her friends fixed it up. It was like walking into a hole,” Abrahams said. “She keeps things fun in here, too.”