published Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Waiting on wine lovers: Little interest so far in referendum to allow wine in grocery stores

A sign in a Kroger supermarket in Nashville urges shoppers to sign up for a group urging lawmakers to change state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores.
A sign in a Kroger supermarket in Nashville urges shoppers to sign up for a group urging lawmakers to change state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

QUALIFIED CITIES

Below are the cities in Hamilton County that qualify to hold a vote on wine in grocery stores and the number of signatures each city would need on a petition in order to generate a referendum on the issue.

* Chattanooga -- 3,865

* East Ridge -- 520

* Signal Mountain -- 342

* Soddy-Daisy -- 333

* Red Bank -- 291

* Collegedale -- 185

* Lookout Mountain -- 94

* Walden -- 85

* Lakesite -- 60

Source: Hamilton County Election Commission

Statewide, the food and wine war is over. Locally, the wets have one more battle — but election officials say they haven't yet taken the field.

If residents in nine of Hamilton County's 10 municipalities want to be able to buy wine and cheese in the same place come 2016, they need to start collecting signatures.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the so-called "wine in grocery stores" bill in March. It allows cities and counties that already allow liquor by the drink or package sales to have a referendum in November whether to allow grocery stores to sell wine.

But Hamilton County Election Administrator Kerry Steelman said he's heard from only one group so far. And they called on behalf of Chattanooga residents. The deadline for petitions is Aug. 21.

"They were just inquiring about getting a petition," Steelman said. "That is the only interest that we've had in this."

That group, according to Steelman, was Red, White and Food, a nonprofit that broke off from the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association. The group said early this month it would lead local petition efforts statewide.

To get the measure on the ballot, each municipality must collect signatures equaling more than 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

That means 3,865 Chattanoogans would have to sign a petition to have the referendum on the ballot in November.

If voters agree, most grocers could start selling wine as early as July 2016. Those within 500 feet of package stores would have to wait until 2017 unless they get written permission from affected package store owners.

After November, the next opportunity for a referendum would be in 2016.

Sam Turner, a stockholder of Enzo's Market on the Southside, said he's afraid the issue is out of sight, out of mind.

"It's been quiet since the Legislature did their approval, and I think it's kind of off people's radar screens," Turner said. "It's just, people think that everything has been accomplished and don't know that there's anything else to do."

Turner is surprised big grocers haven't been drumming up local support.

"I'm absolutely astonished that Publix isn't [leading a petition effort]. And you would also think Costco would be playing the game. They are the largest wine retailer in the country," Turner said. Costco has locations near Nashville and Knoxville, but the closest store to Chattanooga is in Fort Oglethorpe.

There has always been turbulence between grocers who want to sell wine and package store owners who want to protect their sales. If no petitions get passed locally, the package store owners could get the better end of the deal.

According to the law, as of July 1, package store owners will be allowed to sell beer, ice, mixers and a number of other items alongside their normal fare -- petition or no.

Chris Bratcher, who owns Riverside Wine and Spirits, said he has been considering wine referendums inevitable and was surprised that no one had picked up the ball.

He's been focused on combining his package store with the beer store he owns next door. He hopes to shave some overhead costs by consolidating, but reallocating inventory and changing familiar purchasing habits can be spooky to business owners.

"But more than anything else there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a lot of unknown variables. Most retailers are probably somewhat either confused or not entirely sure about all the changes coming," Bratcher said.

Ridgeside is the only city in Hamilton County that doesn't qualify for the referendum. County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said he's found no record of the unincorporated county ever having passed liquor by the drink or package sales referendums.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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