Liquor petition growing

By Thomas Wilson
star staff
twilson@starhq.com

  Petitions requesting that a liquor-by-the-drink referendum be placed on the Nov. 2 election ballot for city of Elizabethton voters is gaining momentum among organizers and residents supporting the measure.
  Elizabethton resident Sam Barker has spearheaded a drive to put a referendum on the November election ballot allowing city of Elizabethton residents to vote on whether liquor should be served in the city. Barker told the Star on Monday organizers had "well over 300 names" on the petition.
  "We plan to file our petitions in the next couple of weeks," Barker said. "With the advent of things going on, this could be a real plus for our community."
  To be placed on an election ballot as a referendum, a petition must bear the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters in the county or municipality who voted in the last gubernatorial election. The petition to place a referendum for spirited beverages before city of Elizabethton voters requires approximately 316 signatures verified by Carter County Election Commission officials.
  According to county Administrator of Elections Tracy Harris, a petition requesting a referendum on the November ballot must be turned into the Election Commission office by Sept. 3 - 60 days before the federal presidential election - to have the petition's signatures verified and validated.
  Barker said he had researched the economic link between the sale of mixed drinks and growth of restaurants in a community. He said organizers had been working on the logistics of getting the petitions together for three months.
  "I think if we can get the signatures, I think it will pass," said Sam Ritchie, who is gathering signatures on a petition separate from Barker's.
  Unlike the sale of beer which is regulated by local municipalities, the sale of spirited beverages is regulated at the state level. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues licenses to restaurants to sell mixed drinks as well as licensing the restaurant employees who serve alcoholic beverages.
  Johnson City residents voted to approve the sale of mixed drinks at establishments when the measure was put to a citywide referendum in 1980. The referendum was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which effectively ratified the referendum in favor of Johnson City in 1982. The city has since experienced an explosion of chain eateries such as Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday's and Cheddar's in the past 20 years.
  Local organizers hope the measure could ignite restaurant and service-related business growth in Elizabethton.
  "We are hopeful we will secure a line of major restaurant chains in the area," said Barker.
  Referendum proponents like Barker are not alone.
  In its 2003-2004 economic development plan, the Elizabethton-Carter County Economic Development Commission endorsed a liquor-by-the-drink referendum placed on the election ballot.
  Private clubs such as the Elks and Moose clubs located in Elizabethton already enjoy the privilege of serving mixed drinks to club members based on their state-issued club licenses. The Captain's Table restaurant at Lakeshore Marina resort on Watauga Lake in Carter County also holds a private club license permitting the sale of mixed drinks to club members who have paid a joining fee and received approval from the resort association's board of directors.
  The Elizabethton Beverage Board issues and regulates permits to serve beer and wine. More than 30 establishments in Elizabethton presently hold licenses to serve beer and wine for consumption either on premise or to carry away. The Carter County Beer Board - a committee under the County Commission - governs the issuance of licenses to sell beer in the county.
  Barker said the area's changing economic structure called for a reevaluation of how Elizabethton can raise tax revenues while making the area more attractive for potential economic development. He said assets such as quality of life, transportation infrastructure and public education structure were the area's bedrock, but the community needs to develop an appealing social climate for mainstream growth.
  "We have a good nearby college and university, and a good community," he said. "We need to work on the social aspects of our area."