“ …We are an island within the county that does not sell alcohol on Sundays,” Fort Oglethorpe mayor Lynn Long says. “We are creating a disadvantage for retailers wanting to sell alcohol seven days a week.”
Selling alcohol on Sundays has been a controversial topic, for ethical reasons, in Fort Oglethorpe. But recently the conversation has shifted to lost revenue.
On Feb. 1, a letter from Northwest Georgia Bank was sent to the city of Fort Oglethorpe requesting 41.25 acres of commercial property on Battlefield Parkway, between Dietz Road and Dyers Road, be de-annexed from the city.
“It is a property ripe for retail development,” said executive vice president Kerry Riley with Northwest Georgia Bank, which is headquartered in Ringgold and has a large branch in Fort Oglethorpe.
“A retailer (such as a restaurant or grocery) won’t construct without being able to sell alcohol on Sundays,” Riley said. “Generally speaking, as with any marketing opportunity, time is of the essence. Restaurants make money selling alcohol and so do grocery stores, whether you drink it or not.”
Since the city of Ringgold and the surrounding county approved Sunday alcohol sales in the November 2012 election, commercial property has become more difficult to advertise in Fort Oglethorpe without carrying the same advantages of surrounding areas.
In November 2011 Fort Oglethorpe voters rejected Sunday alcohol sales, with 594 voters (55 percent) saying “no” and 487 voters (45 percent) saying “yes.”
“This is a vacant tract of land owned by Northwest Georgia Bank and they sent us a letter saying they want to be de-annexed,” mayor Long said. “I have spoke to them and hopefully they will back off until after the (March 19) election.”
Vote on Sunday alcohol sales hinges on council seat winner in March 19 election
Many factors play into the mayor’s hope to let citizens vote on Sunday alcohol sales, such as getting an additional council member — after the March 19 election for the council’s Ward 5 post — who might favor of putting the referendum on the ballot for the November election.
Two candidates are vying in the March 19 election for the Ward 5 post: Judd Burkhart, who has already said he wants to put the vote on Sunday alcohol sales on the ballot; and Clarence “Clay” Kissner, who has not committed for or against the vote but seems less likely than Burkhart to approve it.
Meanwhile, current council members Louis Hamm and Johnnie Smith have both expressed their disfavor with putting Sunday alcohol sales on the ballot.
Meanwhile, some observers speculate that another facet may come into play on the alcohol vote: that is, who is — and who is not — up for re-election on the council in November. Three posts on the council will be up for re-election: Gray, Hamm, and the winner of the Ward 5 post in the March 19 election. The mayor and Smith’s posts are not up for re-election.
When council member Earl Gray put the item on the council’s meeting agenda in January, he was the sole supporter of the referendum being placed on the ballot in March. When his motion failed, it was the last chance to put the referendum on the March ballot. November would be the next available time to put both referendums for package sales and consumption on the ballot.
State laws only allows package sales to be voted on in March and November, but if it means the city could loose more than 40 acres valued at more than $4 million, the city could request an exemption, according to Gray.
“That’s a piece of property valued at $4 million. Just think of the taxes to be lost by de-annexing it. And once there is development on the property, it would be even more,” Gray said.
At this point the city is at a standstill on the issue, since it has only three council members, with two of the three not favoring a vote on Sunday alcohol sales. Long said he plans to put the item on the council’s agenda at its March 25 meeting, immediately following the Ward 5 council election. If the newly voted council member is in favor of putting Sunday alcohol sales on the ballot, then it could come to a tie on the council — in which case mayor Long would break the tie. And it’s obvious how he would vote, he said.
“The enthusiasm of me talking about putting it on the agenda tells you how I’m going to vote,” Long said. “We are just letting the citizens vote on it. We are not saying we are all going to have a beer in our hands the Sunday after the election.”
When Fort Oglethorpe citizens voted for package sales in 2011, alcohol was not being sold in Ringgold on Sunday. And now the difference has the city of Fort Oglethorpe at a disadvantage, according to Gray. Fort Oglethorpe can offer better fire protection, faster response time with emergency calls and even better insurance rates based on the ISO rating, Gray said. But if a business stands to make more money in the county, then it would outweigh the benefits the city of Fort Oglethorpe has to offer.
“Looking down the road to the future, that’s going to happen,” said Gray. “If we start loosing business and can’t recruit new ones, our revenue is going to be down. If the people don’t vote for it, then they can’t come to me and ask why things have changed.”
The city of Fort Oglethorpe sends letters to national-chain restaurants, hotels and retailers every year, trying to recruit new business. And selling commercial property to developers is exactly what Northwest Georgia Bank is trying to do with its property on Battlefield Parkway. Riley could not comment on specific development or possibilities, but said Sunday alcohol sales does have a bearing on their decision to have the property de-annexed from Fort Oglethorpe and move into the county.
“I don’t think there would be an issue with staying in the city if they pass it (referendum for Sunday alcohol sales),” said Riley. “This had nothing to do with the timing of the council meeting (in January). Even though, knowing they were not going to approve alcohol sales, we decided to pursue the de-annexation.”
Listed on the agenda for the upcoming council meeting, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m., the de-annexation request will be discussed by the council. Long hopes to delay the request until after the citizens are able to vote again on the referendum.