Loudon liquor issue revived

Backers use direct mail plea to put it to November vote

By Hugh G. Willett, knoxnews.com

A direct mail campaign by a group called Citizens for a Better Loudon County hopes to put a referendum on the November ballot that would allow sales of packaged liquor within the county and Lenoir City.

Supporters of the initiative point to significant tax revenues currently being lost to adjoining counties.

"All you have to do is look at all the Loudon license plates at stores in other counties to realize we're giving up valuable tax revenue," said Ed Bell, a retired banker and one of the three Loudon County businessmen backing the initiative.

The Loudon County school system is facing revenue shortfalls, and the Loudon County Commission has proposed increased property taxes and a wheel tax, Bell said.

Liquor taxes combined with sales tax could generate considerable revenue, he added.

"We are not advocating by any means the drinking of alcohol," Bell said. "We think those who want to buy alcohol should have the opportunity to do so in their own county."

It's not the first time such an initiative has been proposed in Loudon County.

In 2006, a similar initiative, also backed by Bell, real estate agent John Tuck and veterinarian Barry Gordon failed at the ballot box.

Campbell Station Wine and Liquors in Farragut does a tremendous amount of business from Loudon County residents, said manager Scott Beatty.

"We get a lot of the retired folks from Tellico Village," Beatty said. "We give a 10 percent discount to seniors every day."

Location is just one of the factors in running a successful liquor store, Beatty said.

Knox County stores that buy in volume and are able to offer lower prices will still be able to compete with smaller stores in Loudon County, he said.

Former Loudon County commissioner and current school board candidate Van Shaver was an outspoken opponent of the liquor referendum in 2006.

The backers of the current initiative are "still selling the same old snake oil," he said.

"They'll tell you it's about the taxes. They'll tell you it's about the schools. It's really all about the money," Shaver said.

Although the backers of the proposal say they have the approval of state election officials, Shaver said he is concerned that the petitions will be mailed to the political action committee Citizens for a Better Loudon County and then presented to the election commission.

"They won't know whose signature is on that card," he said.

The direct mail fliers were mailed last week to residents in Loudon County and Lenoir City. Up to two registered voters in each household can sign the petition.

The flier includes a pre-paid return postage card for those who support putting the issue on the ballot.

State law requires areas interested in having package stores to hold a referendum on the issue.

To get the referendum on the ballot, supporters must collect signatures of at least 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

According to Bell, this would require 215 qualified signatures in Lenoir City and 1,676 signatures for Loudon County.

Signing a petition does not mean the person signing is necessarily in favor of allowing a package store or supports drinking alcohol - it simply means he or she believes the people should be allowed to decide the issue, Bell added.