Out of the blue and into the black: North Georgia towns starting to see boon from alcohol sales

Out of the blue and into the black: North Georgia towns starting to see boon from alcohol sales

June 20th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Betty Jane stands in front of a row of wine and craft beer at Blue Ridge Tasting Room in downtown Blue Ridge, Ga. If Blue Ridge hadn't allowed restaurants to sell beer and wine in 2008, she said she and her husband, Andrew Bruce, never would have opened the business.

Photo by Tim Omarzu /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you agree with the sale of alcohol on Sundays?

Blue laws fall like dominoes:

• April 2011: Georgia lets communities decide whether to allow Sunday retail alcohol sales, which previously were banned statewide.

• November 2011: Voters OK Sunday sales in more than 100 Georgia cities and counties, including Atlanta and Savannah.

• November 2012: Voters in Ringgold and unincorporated areas of Catoosa County approve Sunday sales.

• November 2013: Fort Oglethorpe voters OK Sunday sales, after rejecting them in on the 2011 ballot.

• May 2014: Walker County voters approve Sunday sales in the county's unincorporated areas. Rossville City Council OKs Sunday sales in restaurants.

• November 2014: Whitfield County voters will decide whether to allow Sunday package and restaurant sales in unincorporated areas of the county.

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. - Tourists pack the sidewalks of this mountain town, and merchants offer everything from wine tasting to hot stone massage to bamboo fly-fishing rods handmade by the store's owner - who was commissioned by former President Jimmy Carter to build a trout rod.

But it wasn't always this fancy - or lively - in Blue Ridge.

Jeff Turner, a 20-something with deep family roots who has visited Blue Ridge all his life, remembers when downtown was pretty much dead.

"Everyone here, when you graduated high school, it was either farming or working in the Levi's factory," said Turner, a trout fishing guide who recently bought Blue Ridge Fly Fishing, a shop in the heart of downtown. "Now there's options for people again."

Blue Ridge got a big shot in the arm in 2008, when voters agreed to let restaurants sell beer, wine and liquor except on Sundays, said Betty Jane. She is co-owner of the Blue Ridge Tasting Room, a downtown business that specializes in craft beer and wine made in Georgia.

"There were hardly any restaurants in town," she said, counting off half a dozen high-end eateries that opened after the city went wet.

The final restriction fell on May 20, when Blue Ridge voters OK'd Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor. Being open on Sundays - especially on Memorial Day weekend - already has boosted her business, Jane said.

And if the blue laws were still in place?

"We wouldn't be here," said Jane, a New York transplant. "I don't think half of the stores would have opened."

What Blue Ridge has is what a lot of other Northwest Georgia communities want.

Restrictions on Sunday sales of alcohol sales have fallen like dominoes, and city and county officials hope that moving out of the blue will help put them into the black, financially, by attracting restaurants. Upscale eateries and corporate chains usually won't consider opening in dry cities and counties, because they depend on high profits from alcohol sales.

Conservative Northwest Georgia hasn't quite morphed into Las Vegas, though. For one thing, the ordinances don't allow straight-up bars to open. Local laws typically require that any entity selling alcohol must derive a hefty percentage of its profits from food sales - 70 percent, in Walker County's case.

"I'm not doing this so we can open a bunch of bars; we're doing this to bring in some restaurants," Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said.

Chained reactions

The dominoes started to fall in 2012, when Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that ended Georgia's century-old, religiously motivated ban on Sunday alcohol sales. About 100 cities and counties, including Atlanta and Savannah, voted that same year to go wet on Sundays.

Most local cities and counties followed suit. Whitfield County voters will decide in November whether to allow Sunday package and restaurant sales in the county's unincorporated areas.

So far, new restaurants haven't sprouted like mushrooms in communities that have allowed Sunday sales.

But they're coming to Fort Oglethorpe, Mayor Lynn Long said.

"We will get some restaurants," he said. "Restaurants are a slow process."

Fort Oglethorpe had been the sole Catoosa County government that was dry on Sunday, after voters turned down Sunday sales in 2011. Then the city lost 42 acres of prime real estate on Battlefield Parkway last year due to its position on alcohol.

The land's owner, Northwest Georgia Bank, had the property "deannexed" from the city on behalf of an unnamed developer who wanted potential restaurants and retailers to have the Sunday sales option.

So Sunday sales went before Fort Oglethorpe voters again in November 2013, and this time they passed.

While Sunday sales are new in Fort Oglethorpe, beer and wine sales the rest of week have been legal for years. And as in Blue Ridge, it's been a boost to the economy.

City Manager Ron Goulart said Fort Oglethorpe is on track to take in $320,000 this year from liquor licenses and the sale of beer and wine at such retailers as Costco and Walmart.

"That's a pretty good chunk of change," Goulart said. "I can buy a lot police cars with that."

Fort Oglethorpe gets a dedicated 26 cents from every liter of wine sold, Long said, and 5 cents per can of beer.

"You see a guy out there drink a can of beer? We just made a nickel off him," Long said.

'I don't believe in drinking'

While drinking restrictions are loosening, North Georgia is still smack dab in the Bible belt and anti-alcohol attitudes and regulations persist.

Neighboring Tennessee still bans Sunday sales of liquor and wine statewide, although some communities, such as Chattanooga, allow Sunday beer sales at grocery stores and allow beer, wine and liquor by the drink in restaurants.

Churchgoers' sensibilities are taken into consideration. Sunday sales ordinances require establishments that serve liquor to be several hundred yards away from churches. And alcohol sales aren't allowed until Sunday afternoon.

The closest thing that Catoosa County had to a bar, the Acoustic Cafe near Interstate 75 in Ringgold, just closed - after police hung around outside and targeted customers, the building's landlord said.

"They did have some difficulties with the police ... over the years," said Johnathan Hoover, the controller for the Remco Business Center. "They'd just wait for somebody to leave the parking lot."

Ringgold police reports allege that the Acoustic Cafe served after hours and that at least one underage employee was caught driving under the influence after drinking there.

Although the Rossville City Council OK'd Sunday beer and wine sales in restaurants, you still can't buy beer or wine on Sundays at the Bi-Lo grocery store downtown.

And despite Blue Ridge's economic resurgence, not everyone's happy about Sunday sales there.

"I don't believe in drinking, first of all," said Edna Grady Reeves, a member of First Baptist Church in Blue Ridge. "I don't think it's necessary every day of the week."

Seth Shelton, a brewer at Blue Ridge Brewery who's from nearby Ellijay, Ga., understands the conflict.

"I grew up in a church family. Dad's a preacher. All that stuff," Shelton said. While his dad thinks brewing is a great trade to learn, when it comes to Sunday sales, Shelton said, "he's not a fan."

The brewpub's customers from Atlanta and elsewhere have been surprised to find they couldn't get a drink to go with Sunday dinner, he said. That won't be a problem, now, since Blue Ridge's blue laws are gone.

"It's something that this town has needed." Shelton said. "Times are changing, you know?"

Staff writers Rachel Sauls-Wright and Katie Ward Hamilton contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.