East Ridge city council puts limits, requirements on liquor stores

Some argue the plan circumvents the free market

Staff File Photo by Angela Lewis Foster / Last November, 74% of East Ridge voters elected to allow liquor stores, similar to downtown Chattanooga's Jax's Liquors shown in this file photo, to open in the city for the first time in 100 years. On Jan. 28, the East Ridge City Council voted 3-2 to put limitations and requirements on the new stores.

In November, 74% of East Ridge voters elected to allow liquor stores to open in the city for the first time in its 100-year history.

On Jan. 28, the East Ridge City Council voted 3-2 to put limitations and requirements on the new stores, and now some question whether the council's desires match those of voters and whether the council is "meddling" in the marketplace.

According to the new ordinance, which goes into effect in March, two new stores will be allowed in the city - one on the west end of Ringgold Road between the Bachman Tunnel and Belvoir Avenue and the other between South Moore and Spring Creek roads.

The one on the west end must be a minimum of 4,500-square-feet of retail space and the eastern-most store must have a minimum of 7,000-square-feet of retail space. A lottery will determine who gets the rights to build one of the two stores, with only one application allowed per person. Both stores must be new construction and face the street and adhere to rules governing lighting, hours of operation, building materials and signage.

Council members debated during their meeting whether to allow a third store closer to Exit One and the growing commercial area near Camp Jordan, but concluded that a store there would take business away from the other two. They also argued the stores would bring much-needed business to the two areas.

(READ MORE: Voters choose booze on referendums in East Ridge and three rural towns)

City Manager Chris Dorsey said on Wednesday that state law allows the city to put such regulations on liquor stores and lamented that it didn't have the same authority over stores selling fireworks. He said the ordinance is designed to keep quality applicants in place.

Some residents argue the requirements eliminate the "mom-and-pop" stores found in other parts of the region, and Dorsey said that is on purpose. He said the new construction requirement was put in place to hopefully ensure "a quality liquor store experience, and we are trying to stay away from small stores which may not offer that."

He added it is hoped the new construction requirement will also mean some of the empty buildings along Ringgold Road will be demolished to make way for the new buildings.

He said the council considered being less restrictive but opted instead to use the stores as economic drivers for parts of the city that need it most.

"One idea was to let the free market reign, but you can have too many liquor stores, and the examples I give are the fireworks stores," he said.

"And, we wanted to spur economic developments in the middle and western ends of our city. We thought the free, open market was not a good idea."

(READ MORE: East Ridge allows beer sales for off-premise consumption during COVID-19 outbreak)

He said the city has already heard from 25 people who have called to inquire about the application process to enter the lottery. Each will be vetted before the application is accepted or denied, he said, and the lottery will take place during a council meeting in the interest of transparency. One applicant can only apply for one store, he said, but if no one bids on one of the two, a second lottery will be held later. The deadline for applications is March 15.

"There is interest because it is an untapped market," he said.

Earl Wilson, the man largely responsible for getting liquor stores on the November ballot, believes the ordinance overreaches and believes that the market should determine how many stores should be built and how they operate. He worked much of his life in retail with the former Red Food grocery store chain and said it's all about "location, location, location."

"We [Red Food stores] did studies about which side of the road to be on and the importance of being in high-density areas. Seeding these areas is all well and good, but why not put one where the traffic is? Why make people search, if they even think there is going to be a store when they get off the interstate?"

Dorsey pointed out that travelers along Interstate 24 between Brainerd and East Ridge can exit at Germantown Road, Belvoir Avenue and South Moore Road and easily get to Ringgold Road near either of the two proposed stores, as well as Exit One in East Ridge near Jordan Crossing.

Wilson has lived most of his life in East Ridge since 1971 and for much of that time, he said he has watched as businesses tried to enter the marketplace only to end up on Brainerd Road or Battlefield Parkway in North Georgia. One of the reasons he believes that these restaurants, hotels and other tax-revenue-producing enterprises go elsewhere is because of East Ridge's seeming failure to let the citizens choose what sort of enterprises can operate in the city - in particular, those that sell alcohol.

(READ MORE: East Ridge looks to entice businesses as ordinance to loosen beer sale restrictions passes)

Challenged by friends and other city leaders to "put up or shut up," Wilson took it upon himself to rent a small building on Ringgold Road last year "and spent hours standing on hot asphalt getting cussed at and threatened with lawsuits" in order to collect the needed 705 signatures required to get the issue on the ballot in November so that citizens could decide if liquor stores could open in East Ridge.

He got more than 1,000 signatures and on Election Day, nearly half of the city's 21,000 residents voted to allow the stores. Now, Wilson believes, the city council is once again circumventing residents' wishes by placing restrictions on the stores that do not reflect what voters want.

"I did what I did [getting the signatures] for the satisfaction of knowing that the citizens would have a voice when it comes to this city and that voice got taken away when it got to the city," Wilson said. "People expect the council members to listen to them, and they did not.

"East Ridge is 100 years old this year, and it has taken 21 years into the 21st Century to step into the 21st Century. I thought we were moving forward."

Robert Maner has lived in East Ridge almost eight years and said the issue for him is more about government overreach. He said he isn't interested in having "small, dark and dank" liquor stores like in other parts of town, preferring instead the newer, more high-end stores such as Imbibe on Broad Street.

"I think their intentions are essentially good," Maner said, "but with me, it has more to do with government meddling in the free market than the sale of alcohol. The free market needs to determine who wins.

"I understand their intention, but I disagree with the precedent it sets for who can do what in the free market."

Wilson said he loves the city and wants to see it grow and thrive. He said while he was gathering signatures, "I probably had another 1,500 North Georgia residents want to sign it." He had to explain that only East Ridge residents could sign it.

"The thing I heard from people over and over was not that we want a liquor store but that we need a liquor store in East Ridge. People are tired of having to drive to Brainerd Road or Rossville Boulevard."

He said the majority of signees were women and that many people brought their 18- and 19-year-old kids with them to ask questions about the process, free enterprise and business in general.

Wilson said that the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission has a formula for how many liquor stores a city can support based on population and that East Ridge could have 4.4 based on those numbers.

"And, that doesn't take into account the North Georgia people," he said.

(READ MORE: East Ridge eyeing improved beer permits)

He said he never had anyone ask him about the size or type of stores the city might have during his five months of collecting signatures.

"They asked how many I thought we'd have," he said. "Personally I think three is enough, but let the market decide."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.