Chattanoogans get to vote on wine; prohibition-era law could fall in November

PASSED(Signatures gained/required)• Chattanooga: 3,878/3,865• Collegedale: 201/185• East Ridge: 525/520• Lakesite: 64/60• Red Bank: 300/291• Signal Mountain: 380/342FAILED• Lookout Mountain: 28/94• Soddy-Daisy: 302/333• Walden: 5/85STILL COUNTING• Unincorporated Hamilton County: 1,187/3,246Source: Hamilton County Election Commission

Come November, Chattanoogans will make history.

Voters either will uphold decades-old, prohibition-era laws that keep wine sales out of food stores, or they will take a revolutionary step and bring wine and food together.

Hamilton County Election Administrator Kerry Steelman said Monday that Chattanooga and Collegedale have joined four other municipalities that will have referendums in November to decide whether wine will be allowed to be sold in grocery stores.

By the deadline on Thursday, East Ridge, Lakesite, Red Bank and Signal Mountain all had turned in enough signatures to the election commission to put the referendum on ballots. But election officials were still counting signatures for other municipalities.

Each community needs to come up with enough signatures to equal at least 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

On Monday, Steelman said Chattanooga passed its 3,865 signature limit by 13 names. Collegedale -- which got a late bump in signatures minutes before last week's deadline -- cleared its 185-name requirement by 16 signatures.

But the count is not over, he said.

"All that remains is the unincorporated Hamilton County, and we should have that by the end of the week, maybe sooner," Steelman said.

That means Lookout Mountain, Soddy-Daisy and Walden will go without this time around.

But grocers have rejoiced at the news of communities that will be putting the issue up for a vote.

Fred Shropshier, regional vice president of BI-LO's Chattanooga stores, said in a written statement last week he was pleased to hear residents got involved.

"It was important to us to give our customers the opportunity to communicate their preference, and we want to thank those who took the time to come to our stores and sign the petition," he said.

Red, White & Food, a nonprofit organization that coordinated petition efforts across the state, was also pleased to see fruit from its labor, according to Susie Alcorn, the groups campaign manager.

"This is a great day for Chattanooga voters, who will have the opportunity to determine whether wine can be sold in their retail food stores," Alcorn said.

She said gathering valid petitions was a lot of work and thanked the grocers, residents and election officials who were involved along the way.

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 wine referendums in November.

Ridgeside is the only municipality in Hamilton County that doesn't allow either liquor by the drink or package sales.

If the referendum passes in November, most grocers in those communities could start selling wine as early as July 2016. But stores within 500 feet of liquor stores would have to wait another year unless they get written permission from the nearby package store owners.

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

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at or at 423-757-6481.