Without a doubt, the most polarizing issue in the history of East Ridge politics is alcohol.
For a generation the issue of “liquor by the drink” split this city apart. At one point in the 1970s, East Ridge had the third highest concentration of motel rooms around an interstate exit in the country. It was packed with full motels and thirsty travelers who wanted a mixed drink. Couldn’t get one here in East Ridge. The travelers eventually figured out they could go a couple miles further and get a Jack on the rocks.
The big chain motels dried up and were replaced by, shall we say, less-than-desirable options. Remember, the building where the Budgetel is now was originally a huge Days Inn.
During the 70s, proponents of liquor-by-the drink proposed a referendum. They argued if it passed the tourists at Exit 1 could drink up and the city would benefit by increased tax dollars.
Opponents of the measure argued that it was morally wrong. Remember, East Ridge had about a dozen big churches up and down Ringgold Road at the time. Many opponents used a more graphic example for rejecting liquor-by-the-drink: “drunks would get in their cars and run over our children.”
It took more than 30 years for liquor-by-the drink to get on the ballot. When it did it passed. What happened? Not much.
Today, a handful of restaurants in our city offer mixed drinks. There was no spike in children being run down by drunks behind the wheel. The city’s sales tax revenue stream grew incrementally.
Along about 2008, city leaders proposed beer sales at special events in Camp Jordan. Proponents said that the park could host events like “Nightfall” in downtown Chattanooga. It would be a heckuva party and would promote East Ridge.
Opponents of the measure argued it would be morally wrong and set a bad example for the kids. “Drunks would get in their cars and run over our children.”
It took a decade to get an ordinance allowing “beer in the park.” What happened? Not much.
There have been a handful of events over the last couple years inside Camp Jordan. Various private organizations have hosted get-togethers inside the Arena and had a few beers. There was no spike in children being run down by drunks behind the wheel. The city got a few bucks off the permitting fee and perhaps a few more people in the region believed that East Ridge was becoming a little more enlightened.
Now there is an effort to allow the sale of liquor in package stores. This requires a change in the City Charter; You know, because when the city was established in 1921, liquor was a demon, I tell you. Never mind that East Ridge was the “Wild, Wild East” from the 20s, through prohibition and into the 1950s. Bootleg whiskey was readily available in East Ridge and everybody knew it and beat a path up and down Ringgold Road to get it.
Forgive me, please, for the digression. Had to throw that in there, folks.
OK. According to the Hamilton County Election Commission, to get this liquor referendum on the ballot in November requires the signatures of 705 registered voters in East Ridge who voted in the 2018 election for governor.
Proponents of the referendum argue that package stores will be an additional revenue stream for the city’s coffers and more convenient for residents to purchase hooch down the street.
Opponents of the measure argue it’s morally wrong and will be the downfall of East Ridge. They sometimes use the phrase “Rossville Boulevard” when talking about how bad it would be. Oh, and of course, “drunks would get in their cars and run over our children.”
One man has taken the bull by the horns and has begun an effort to garner the needed signatures. On Friday and Saturday, Earl Wilson, the man who has that bull by the horns, set up shop at the old Milk Jug store at the corner of Keeble Street and Ringgold Road to ask people to sign the petition. He flew a banner on the building that said “Petition for Progress.”
Over two days, a total of 12 hours at the site, Wilson said four people signed the petition. However, many more curious folks stopped to talk about what he was doing.
Wilson told this writer that many people from North Georgia stopped to support the effort. He said they wanted to hop across the line and purchase liquor in good old East Ridge. Wilson had to turn them away because they weren’t registered voters.
Somebody stopped and gave him lunch on Friday, he said.
An 80-year-old woman who was recently widowed stopped to chat on Saturday. Wilson said she was probably just lonely. Nevertheless, she said she didn’t drink alcohol but that she was in favor of allowing citizens to vote on the measure. Wilson said he and the elderly woman had a warm conversation and he would be checking in on her in the future.
Another man stopped by to see what was happening. Wilson said the man professed his Christianity and threw down some Bible versus on Wilson regarding the immorality of strong drink.
Then there was this little gem: According to Wilson, the man said, “I’m going to fervently pray that God strikes you down.” Wilson countered that the man’s statement wasn’t a very Christian thing to say.
All I can say is God Bless Earl Wilson. I hope nothing happens to the man.
How long it will take to pass a referendum allowing package stores to sell liquor is anyone’s guess. And, what’s gonna happen if it does?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say not very much.
The city will have another sales tax revenue stream and drunk drivers leaving package stores most probably will not be mowing down our kids in the street.