Co-founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Company Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant made their case Thursday morning in front of the Hamilton County Commission for why local liquor production should be allowed.
The commission chamber didn't have enough room to seat all the supporters who came to hear the duo's presentation, and local resident Mark West voiced the lone dissenting opinion from the crowd.
West—who is president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, but noted that his opinion did not reflect any organizations he works with—said he felt like he had stumbled into a reunion of the television sitcom "Cheers" when he got to the commission meeting.
"I'm fairly engaged in political activism and would love to see this kind of response to so many other issues," he also said.
Then, West gave a quick "civics lesson," arguing that the Founding Fathers created this nation as a constitutional republic, not a democracy, which means elected officials must vote their conscience, not necessarily vote exactly as citizens want them to.
Ledbetter and Piersant, along with many others who support their mission, argue that local whiskey production will bring jobs and tax revenue to the area.
But West said that should not be the primary consideration when making this decision. If it were, then why not legalize marijuana, he said.
"The entire alcohol industry has numerous adverse consequences," he said. "We know their product will be abused. What message are we sending to young, impressionable minds—that the almighty dollar trumps all?"
A little more than a year ago, Ledbetter and Piersant founded the Chattanooga Whiskey Company. In the past seven months, they have sold more than 3,000 cases of their product, Ledbetter said.
A case has six bottles, each with a fifth of whiskey.
Chattanooga Whiskey is sold in more than a dozen states, and the product has drawn strong local support, which area residents voice, in part, via social media.
But—even though the product bears a local name—it must be produced in Lawrenceburg, Ind., because it's currently illegal to make it in Hamilton County.
A 2009 law allows Tennessee counties where there are both operating liquor stores and liquor-by-the-drink sales to produce liquor.
And although Hamilton County meets both those requirements, at the time state leaders passed the law, officials decided to opt out and continue to prevent liquor manufacture in this area.
Ledbetter and Piersant initially hoped that Hamilton County could permit the production of liquor by means of a County Commission resolution instead of a referendum, or public vote. But last month, the Tennessee attorney general issued an opinion that Hamilton County leaders couldn't do that.
However, commissioners can adopt a nonbinding resolution to send to the state Legislature, whose leaders would then decide whether to let Hamilton County opt back in and take advantage of the 2009 law.
"Neighboring counties in competition for tourism have taken advantage of the 2009 bill, and we feel that Hamilton County has as much, if not more, potential than they do," Piersant told commissioners Thursday morning.
To adopt the nonbinding resolution, at least six commissioners must sign a letter of support to send to state leaders.
Thursday morning, they agreed to entertain the possibility and accept a letter.
On Nov. 21, each commissioner will decide if they want to sign the letter.
Commissioner Joe Graham said Thursday morning that, although he had been having mixed feelings on the issue, he would sign the letter.
Commissioner Warren Mackey has indicated that he supports local production.
If the letter gets six signatures, state leaders will then decide whether to let liquor production happen in Hamilton County.
With state approval, Hamilton County commissioners would then adopt a formal resolution allowing for local production.
Tourism, tax, job benefits
The 2009 law allowed 41 of the state's 95 counties to make liquor, in addition to three others that already allowed it.
Leaders with Chattanooga Whiskey said that counties who allow liquor manufacture have the potential to bring in tax and tourism dollars and create jobs.
Piersant cited the example of Sevier County's Ole Smoky Distillery, which opened in 2010 with 10 employees. He said it now has more than 75 employees and is on track to make $20 million in revenue.
"We anticipate that Chattanooga Whiskey Company will also start with no less than 10 employees, each making a salary of approximately $35,000 a year," Piersant said.
Those employees would pay about $600 each in property taxes to the county, totaling about $6,000, the Chattanooga Whiskey team estimated.
The duo wants to move into a building on the Southside—where the city's first urban winery recently opened—and spend about $1 million to renovate it.
Then, there is the issue of sales tax. Chattanooga Whiskey leaders estimate that they could make $6 million in annual retail sales, which would generate about $67,000 per year in sales and use taxes.
"One of the most exciting benefits to having a distillery is the ability to draw local visitors to the area and promote our hometown on a national scale," Piersant said.
After researching how many visitors other distilleries bring in, Ledbetter and Piersant think they could bring in 400 visitors a day, six days a week.
They think that 200 of those visitors would come from out of town specifically to tour the distillery.
They estimate that each visitor to the area spends an average of $150 a day, which would mean about $105,000 a year for the county.
Graham is the only one who said publicly Thursday morning that he would sign the letter in approval for local production.
But he said his decision didn't come without hesitation.
"I have toyed with this and studied this, and it really twisted me around," he said. "My decision got clouded, not because of you two gentleman."
Graham said he was disappointed that some Chattanooga Whiskey supporters had treated state District 27 Rep. Richard Floyd—who vocalized opposition of liquor production in Hamilton County—as an enemy.
Ledbetter has continually urged for a civil and respectful discussion on the issue.
But in October, a letter to the editor on the Chattanoogan.com said that a vote for Floyd was a vote against local business.
That letter came after Floyd told the Times Free Press that alcohol kills many people and that manufacturers of alcohol share some responsibility in those deaths.
Citizens re-elected Floyd in the election earlier this month.
And despite Graham's disapproval for how some people came out against Floyd, he said he will look at the situation as an economic tool.
"It is already being consumed and sold [here]," he said. "I do think it's a novel idea to have our name on the bottle. If a letter is presented, then yes, I will support it and sign it. But I do think some of the people who have been attacking our state legislator own him an apology."
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