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Divided Franklin board OKs vote on alcohol sales

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

This summer residents of Franklin will vote on whether to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages, following a town board decision to hold a referendum on the issue.

Aldermen Jerry Evans, Bob Scott and Sissy Pattillo voted for the referendum while Verlin Curtis, Billy Mashburn and Charles Roper voted against it. Mayor Joe Collins cast the tie-breaking vote, passing the motion.

The referendum will allow voters to vote for or against two types of alcohol sales — beer and mixed beverages.

Currently restaurants within Franklin town limits can give away, but not sell, beer. State Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission laws stipulate that the giving away of alcoholic beverages must come with no strings attached. There can be no donations collected for the beverages, no suggested tip jar, and no rules that beverages can be given only to customers who pay for something to eat.

This summer’s vote will mark the first time Franklin has had a referendum on mixed beverages. Allowing mixed beverage sales is believed to open the door for chain restaurants that feature bars in their design. Such restaurants — everything from Outback Steakhouse to Chili’s — most likely wouldn’t locate in a town without mixed beverage or beer sales.

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But the chef and owner of Caffe Rel — Richard Long — says that if it comes down to a drink or dinner, he sides with dinner.

“We are not about alcohol, we are about the food,” Long said.

Located in the same building as Franklin’s Hot Spot gas station, Caffe Rel’s exterior doesn’t bare witness to it’s eclectically influenced menu and interior design. The Caffe is a dining hot spot for the community.

Long said he’s not looking to attract customers who just want to get drunk. Those who want to have a glass of wine with dinner? Sure.

“I could care less if that law goes through,” Long said.

Should the referendum pass, Long said he would probably add beer to his menu but would aim for specialty and microbrew beer rather than Budweisers and Miller Long Necks.

Uptown at The Chef and His Wife, owner Mark Wilkins holds a similar opinion.

“I wouldn’t mind selling beer, but I really don’t want to deal with the hassle of liquor, and I don’t want to see a bunch of bars pop up in Franklin,” Wilkins said.

The referendum would not allow for alcohol sales in freestanding bars, only those in Class A — restaurant type — establishments.

Wilkins said he has lost customers over the years who refuse to eat somewhere they can’t get a mixed beverage with dinner. It happens a couple times a year. He’s also lost customers because the entire restaurant is non-smoking.

If the referendum should pass, Wilkins concurred with Long, saying he would definitely add beer to his menu, but not liquor. However, Wilkins doesn’t think the referendum stands a chance, estimating that 90 percent of voters are against it.

“The voting base in Franklin is very, very conservative,” Wilkins said, characterizing himself as a slightly more relaxed conservative.

Franklin — the commercial center and county seat for Macon County — has only 2,837 registered voters. The county’s population is closer to 32,000. About 7 percent of the county’s residents will be voting on a referendum that will affect the county as a whole. The voting lines are a source of ire for restaurant owners like Wilkins, who operate a business but do not live within city limits and thereby have no official say on the measure.

“They’re blocking out a huge portion of the population that uses Franklin’s services,” Wilkins said.

In neighboring Jackson County, tax revenue from beer and wine sales in Sylva support the town’s recreation department. Tax money is paid to the county to operate the pool located beside town hall.

So far the only true bar — an establishment that does not sell any kind of food with its alcohol — that has cropped up on the Sylva skyline is the Rusty Lizard, located adjacent to the Thunder Lanes bowling alley in Jackson Plaza.

Sylva voters approved a referendum this May to allow mixed beverage sales. Voters approved the referendum 257 votes for, 182 against.

The vote marked the third time since 1994 that Sylva voted on liquor by the drink. The margin of defeat decreased from 163-91 in 1994 to 220-209 in 2001 — numbers supporters said were indicative of a change in the tide.

However, a key component in Sylva’s liquor by the drink vote is that the referendum was tied to primary elections. In addition to drawing a slightly larger voting block — turnout was around 25 percent — holding the referendum in conjunction with the primary cost Sylva taxpayers only about $1,000, said town manger Jay Denton.

There’s no reason that Franklin couldn’t have done the same, except that town board members didn’t discuss the issue until the night before the primaries. Consequently, taxpayers will be funding a special election that most likely will draw few voters to the polls simply because there are no other issues to provoke a turnout.

Franklin, and Macon County as a whole, is one of the last holdouts for alcohol sales.

A community’s willingness to allow for alcohol sales generally relates to its size. All major municipalities have alcohol sales, and referendums on the issue are being passed throughout the state.

“The state has been quickly filling in,” said Doyle Alley, Deputy Administrator for the state ABC Commission. “It’s been a patchwork across the state of ‘this is allowed there, but not there.’”

Communities are allowing for sales, largely to promote further development and attract those chain restaurants, Alley said. It’s an economic development measure more and more are using.

“The towns that are coming on board now are being smaller and smaller in my observation,” he said.

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