Hamilton Co. Commissioners mull lifting distillery prohibition
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -- To read the postings on their 'Vote Whiskey' Facebook page, you might believe that Chattanooga Whiskey founders Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant were trying to gather a flash mob to fill the chambers of the Hamilton County Commission Thursday.
Instead, it would look more like 'Business After Hours' gathered in front of Jefferson's Restaurant. Except it was nine in the morning. And they had no liquor.
Which was entirely their point.
"When I saw that a Chattanooga product was being made out-of-town, I just thought this didn't make a lot of sense," says lifelong Chattanoogan David Wills, an insurance consultant supporting the cause.
More than 450 signed up to attend. Roughly 75-100 enter the Commission meeting en masse.
"To request you ask the state delegation to add Hamilton County back into the 2009 bill which would allow us to make the product locally," Ledbetter tells Commissioners.
"We'd hire no less than ten employees," Piersant said. "Each making a salary of approximately $35,000 a year."
"You guys have done your homework real well," 4th District Commissioner Dr. Warren Mackey praises.
Dr. Mackey couches his questions to allow Ledbetter and Piersant to sell lifting the prohibition on liquor manufacturing and bottling as a boon for tax collections and tourism.
"Take one of our old buildings, restore it, put it in production, collect taxes off of it," Dr. Mackey pitches.
"We don't see any opposition here today," Ledbetter says. "Maybe there is."
"What message are we sending to our community in general, but even more specifically to our younger, impressionable minds," community activist Mark West asks. "Are we not communicating to them that the Almighty Dollar trumps all?"
West pleads that Commissioners consider their decision a 'vote of conscience and morality."
Sixth District Commissioner Joe Graham concedes he's conflicted. "Yes I will sign it to bring whiskey home," Graham says. "But I do think that those who've been criticized for taking strong stands against this issue, you owe 'em an apology."
Graham is referring to TN Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga) who persuaded the Tennessee General Assembly to exclude Hamilton County from the enabling legislation in 2009.
"I've made known I oppose it on moral and religious grounds," Rep. Floyd tells Channel 3 via telephone Thursday. "But this legislation also end-runs the voters. They should be deciding this by referendum."
Floyd vows to "do everything in my power to stop it" should lawmakers reconsider the issue in January.
"We apologize to Representative Floyd, and I met with him personally," Ledbetter says. "He's a great guy, and we respect his opinions."
Chairman Larry Henry says Commissioners will vote next Wednesday, whether to draft a letter to Hamilton County's delegation urging they work to lift Hamilton County's liquor prohibition.
"We'll need a two-thirds vote, that's six Commissioners to sign it," he tells his colleagues. 'It's only the first step in process. If they agree, it'll come back to us and we'll draft a resolution."
Henry sought only one clarification.
"You will not be selling it on premises, is that correct," he says.
"Actually, that's not correct," Ledbetter responds, adding that a number of Tennessee distilleries; Jack Daniel's (Lynchburg) and George Dickel (Tullahoma) offer tours and tastings.
"It's a limited amount, but we would sell a small portion," Ledbetter explains.
Henry has not indicated whether that would be a deal-maker. Or breaker.