Proponents of Tennessee grocery stores being able to sell wine say they're gearing up for the Nov. 4 election where voters in Chattanooga, Signal Mountain and dozens of other communities will decide the issue on local referendums.
The effort will include paid media and in-store displays encouraging voters to say yes, said Suzie Alcorn, campaign manager of the Red, White and Food effort.
"We are in the final stage to get wine in retail food stores," she said. "This summer, we collected more than 262,247 signatures, which led to 78 communities having the wine question on the November ballot."
Early voting begins Wednesday in the election.
Emphasizing that the fight to get wine in Tennessee grocery stores isn't won, representatives from Bi-Lo and Publix supermarkets made stops in Chattanooga on Thursday to urge voters to go to the polls.
"At every step of this, people have assumed that it's the end," said Kelly Allen, account executive at public relations firm Q Strategies, which accompanied the supermarket representatives on Thursday.
The debate over whether Tennessee grocery stores will carry wine products goes back at least eight years. In March, state legislators approved legislation to allow municipalities, with package stores and liquor for off-site consumption, to decide for themselves.
Municipalities needed to get enough voter signatures (10 percent of district residents who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial race) to put the decision on the November ballot.
Noting that "voters will have the final say on the purchase of wine in retail food stores," Alcorn said, "we are encouraging Tennesseans to vote for wine."
"We are grateful to those Tennesseans who have supported the Red White and Food campaign," said Alcorn. "Tennesseans who want to purchase wine with their groceries have worked hard over seven years - to make this a reality, voters must vote for wine," she said.
The movement has met resistance from some independent liquor and wine store operators who believe having wine in grocery stores will put a dent in liquor stores' profits, and that beer sales will be on uneven ground because of profit margins.
The Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association states on its website that allowing wine in grocery stores will threaten "525 Tennessee-owned retail stores in favor of big, out-of-state corporations" and jeopardize "the jobs of 3,000 Tennesseans during the worst economic crisis since the Depression."
After a years' long battle in the state Legislature over the wine-in-grocery stores issue, lawmakers this year passed a compromise between retail food stores and liquor stores. It allowed liquor stores to begin selling beer and party supplies on July 1. In communities where the wine referendum passes, retail food stores will be able to sell wine beginning July 1, 2016, although Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said he wants to move that schedule up.
There is some concern about the wine question's ballot placement. According to Allen, the question will be the very last item on many ballots. Red, White and Food is asking voters to read all the way through their ballots when voting.
The representatives from Bi-Lo and Publix were reluctant on Thursday to say whether the issue affects expansion into Tennessee.
"My company has said we're committed to growing in Tennessee," said Brenda Reid, media and community relations manager for Publix in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Publix is based in Florida.
Darryl Massey, Bi-Lo district director for Chattanooga West, said the South Carolina-based company is "used to operating without wine in Tennessee."
Reid and Massey said retrofitting their stores to accommodate wine will not be an issue in cities and counties where wine-in-grocery-stores is approved.
Publix operates across six southeastern states, Tennessee being the only one where wine sales is not legal in grocery stores.
Bi-Lo acquired Winn-Dixie stores a few years ago and now operates the two franchises across nine southeastern states. For them, Tennessee is also the only state where wine is not allowed to be sold in grocery stores.
Reid said Tennessee Publix customers "continually ask about buying wine in grocery stores."
She said allowing for wine sales "will give us a level playing field, in our opinion."
Massey said having wine in Tennessee grocery stores will ultimately also have positive repercussions for the state's economy.
"Anytime you increase sales, tax revenue will increase," he said.
Contact staff writer Alex Green at email@example.com or 423-757-6480.