Local group petitions for distillery vote in Hamilton Co. - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Local group petitions for distillery vote in Hamilton Co.

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - Should the Scenic City get back in the whiskey business, after almost a century? One local group thinks so.

A newly formed coalition spent the weekend going door-to-door with petitions to get it on the ballot.

A bill to allow additional counties to approve whiskey distilleries without a referendum has been slow moving in the current Tennessee General Assembly. Instead of leaving it up to state lawmakers, the group "Let Hamilton Distill" is pushing for Hamilton County residents to have the vote for its own community.

The issue stepped into the spotlight locally several months ago when the company Chattanooga Whiskey along with hundreds of supporters pleaded their case before the Hamilton County Commission.

"Add Hamilton County back into the 2009 bill which would allow us to make the product locally," Chattanooga Whiskey Co-Founder Joe Ledbetter said before the commission November 15, 2012.

Chattanooga Whiskey's owners say current law is the only thing stopping them from distilling and bottling the beverage in the Scenic City, instead of Indiana, where it is now.

"Take one of our old buildings, restore it, put it in production, collect taxes off of it," Hamilton County Commissioner Dr. Warren Mackey said in the November 15th meeting.

Hamilton County Commissioners voted in favor of a distillery and sent a formal letter requesting that legislators act to change the prohibition law. But, while it's making its way through the General Assembly the new group, Let Hamilton Distill, wants local voters to decide.

"The choice. Personal choice. Being able to vote for what you believe in," Let Hamilton Distill member Tom said.

They've just started knocking on doors, calling and emailing thousands of Hamilton County residents, asking them to sign a petition in an effort to get a countywide referendum on legalizing distilleries.

"Right now it's being made in Indiana and we want to bring those jobs and that revenue down to Hamilton County," Let Hamilton Distill member Rod said.

They say allowing distilleries here will mean job creation, local tax revenue and offer a new attraction. Opponents have argued it's a moral issue.

"Are we not communicating to them that the almighty dollar trumps all," opponent Mark West said to the Hamilton County Commission at the November 15, 2012 meeting.

"I don't think we need to be known as Chattanooga Whiskey," Rep. Richard Floyd (R) Chattanooga said in an October 9th interview with Channel 3.

But, Representative Floyd also said it should be up to the voters by referendum.

The group Let Hamilton Distill hopes to gather 14,000 signatures on their petition-- about 6% of the county's registered voters.            

The owners of Chattanooga Whiskey say they're not associated with Let Hamilton Distill. They say they appreciate their efforts, but don't think a petition is necessary. They're hopeful Tennessee legislators will pass the bill. It is on the Senate calendar for Monday, March 25th.


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