Bill allowing alcohol at street fairs near Chattanooga Choo Choo heads to governor

Bill allowing alcohol at street fairs near Chattanooga Choo Choo heads to governor

April 16th, 2017 by Andy Sher and Dave Flessner in Politics State

Rendering of Station Street which runs between the Choo Choo and Terminal BrewHouse.

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NASHVILLE — A bill allowing outdoor consumption of alcohol along a fast-developing 575-foot stretch of road adjacent to the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam.

The measure would allow street fairs on Station Street, which runs from the 1400 block of Market Street to Rossville Avenue between the Choo Choo and The Terminal Brewhouse.

Haslam is expected to allow the bill to become law after it passed the Senate last week. It is sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire and Rep. Gerald McCormick, both Chattanooga Republicans.

"Chattanooga loves a good street party, but there is not a convenient street to close down," said Choo Choo general manager Adam Kinsey. The former railroad station the Stir, the Revelry Room, the Comedy Catch and the Frothy Monkey, which all open up to Station Street.

He said Station Street "was really designed to be that street and all the businesses there open up on that street and were designed for these kind of street festivals."

The legislation applies to liquor and wine sales licensed and regulated by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Choo Choo owners would have to deal with the city of Chattanooga when it comes to beer sales.

Last month, the grand opening of the Songbirds Guitar Museum on Station Street drew nearly 2,000 people, even with 40-degree temperatures, a bit of rain and sleet and no alcoholic warmers allowed.

On-street consumption could give Station Street an event ambiance like Beale Street in Memphis.

"It most likely would not be every day," Kinsey said. "But the street was designed to be pedestrian-friendly and to be entertainment-focused."

Two other alcohol-related local measures are either headed to Haslam or already on his desk.

A bill sponsored by Gardenhire and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, allows alcohol sales at Finley Stadium for some events.

"Finley obviously won't be serving it when they have UTC games," Hazlewood said. "But they host the soccer games, so this will allow them to serve alcohol there."

Another allows for alcohol sales at the nonprofit Chattanooga Theatre Centre on the North Shore.

"Most people like a glass of wine at intermission or whenever, and [this] also might also give them some opportunities" for wedding receptions or other event rentals, Hazlewood said. "That's a great facility in terms of the location and then the view for receptions and whatever."

As nonprofits, the stadium and theater center sometimes struggle for revenue, she said, so the legislation will "probably give them an opportunity to bring some more dollars in to offset expenses."

From no to yes

These and other alcohol-related measures that routinely pass the Legislature these days are a marked departure from struggles of years past.

Previous members of the Hamilton County delegation fought bitterly during the 1980s and 1990s over allowing alcohol sales at the Tivoli Theatre, the Honors Golf Course and the Tennessee Aquarium, with squabbles occasionally spilling onto the House floor.

Alcohol traditionally has been a sensitive topic in Tennessee. The first Republican governor since Reconstruction was elected when majority Democrats warred amongst themselves over state prohibition. And Tennessee enacted prohibition before the 18th Amendment banned alcohol nationwide in 1919.

Even after it again became legal in Tennessee, alcohol remained strictly regulated under state law. Municipal voters won the right to hold liquor by the drink referendums in 1967, and Chattanooga passed one in the early 1970s.

Alcohol tolerance has accelerated under majority Republicans. They have been willing to challenge the firm grip of distributors, liquor store owners and distillers, in partnership with social conservatives, who opposed liberalizing alcohol laws.

It's good for job creation, they say, pointing to the proliferation of distilleries and micro-breweries.

In 2009, lawmakers passed legislation allowing distilleries in counties where spirits were was sold in restaurants and package stores. Chattanooga was excluded through the efforts of then-Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, a Southern Baptist and teetotaler.

After a two-year effort, proponents inserted Hamilton County and Sevier County in the law, prompting Floyd to complain on the House floor: "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't have a lot of political capital to spend up here. I recognize myself as a mule in the Kentucky Derby. And I certainly don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars of lobby money to try to persuade your vote."

In 2014, following a years-long battle between grocers and the liquor industry, a law passed allowing municipal voters to approve wine sales in grocery stores. It passed in every town and city that held a referendum. Sales began last year.

But legislation this year by McCormick to legalize wine sales on Sundays has pretty much stalled amid opposition from liquor store owners.

Gardenhire, first elected in 2012, said he has no personal stake in liquor laws.

"I don't drink. The only time I drink beer is at home when I have kidney stones and I have to flush [them]. But I'm not going to pass my judgment on people who want to."

Hazlewood, first elected in 2014, said Chattanooga once was dry, but now "It's just a different time and a different place."

In the case of her bills for Finley Stadium and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, she said, "I don't think not-for-profits should be held to more stringent standards."

Still, battles still flare up from time to time. A bill brought last week to the House floor by Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, designated the Sewanee Inn in Franklin County as a "premier type tourist resort," a common way to legalize alcohol sales for restaurants or hotels in rural areas.

That label, though, can become a magnet for other such designations. And that's what happened on Alexander's bill.

An amendment was added that effectively allowed Restoration Hardware, an upscale furniture retailer near Nashville's Green Hills Mall, let customers roam with their wine glasses within its 6,100-square foot, five-story establishment.

That hit a nerve with Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a decided "dry" in the Tennessee General Assembly.

"Now it's used for everything," Dunn complained of premier type resort legislation. "It's getting so ridiculous. What we're getting ready to do is declare a furniture store be treated as a 'premiere resort.'"

Furious debate ensued. Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, charged: "What we see as we saw last year is continuing trend, another trend, another trend. Every year we come up here and liberalize liquor."

But in the end, the wets had the upper hand, and the bill passed 60-27.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.