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Chamber seeks input on alcohol

COVINGTON -- The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce is conducting a survey to determine whether its membership is supportive of liquor by the drink sales in unincorporated Newton County.

The Chamber recently e-mailed more than 700 of the four-question surveys, which ask: 1) If the Chamber should take a position supporting a referendum to determine whether liquor by the drink should be sold in the county; 2) If members are in support of the BOC placing the issue on the ballot; 3) If members support an ordinance to allow alcohol sales in restaurants, hotels and other preapproved establishments and/or select overlay zonings; and 4) If members support an ordinance allowing by the drink sales on Sunday.

"We represent the business community and our members. We don't want to take a stand if we don't know how our business members feel. This is an attempt to get the collective thoughts of our members before moving forward," said Lisa Oglesby, programs director for the Chamber. Oglesby said the Chamber is preparing should the issue be brought before the Board of Commissioners again.

In August, the board voted 3-2 not to place the referendum on the November ballot. Some board members said they wanted public input before bringing the matter to a countywide vote. At the time, the Chamber issued a statement in support of liquor by the drink sales, saying it would encourage economic development and tourism.

The county still has time to get a liquor by the drink referendum on the March 15 special election ballot, which will include the special purpose local option sales tax referendum.

"Jasper County will have alcohol by the drink sales on their referendum in November, so I feel this issue will be revisited again, but there has been no discussion among the BOC regarding a timeline," said Chairman Kathy Morgan. "I am aware that the Chamber sent a survey to their members. The alcohol by the drink issue was considered earlier this year to address the economic development need for restaurants in our county and the bleed of tax dollars to our neighboring counties. This issue was initiated by request from numerous citizens within our county.

"I am sure if the citizens of Newton County want quality commercial development, they will continue to contact their commissioners, and we will revisit this again at some point in the future," she added.

The county's current alcohol ordinance allows retail package sales of beer and wine but not liquor. By the drink sales are not allowed. A referendum is not required to have beer and wine sales by the drink -- that would only require that the board pass an ordinance -- but is necessary to serve distilled spirits.

Morgan is a proponent of a referendum and said liquor by the drink sales are necessary if the county wants to grow its restaurant and commercial base.

"To attract quality national chain restaurants to commercial centers in Newton County, alcohol by the drink is a major consideration in site selection per the Georgia Restaurant Association. Frankly, I was told that they would not consider a site without the ability to sell alcohol by the drink," she said.

However, not all officials agree. In August, Commissioner Mort Ewing said he sees it as more of a social than economic development issue and doubts the county will see large revenues if alcohol by the drink is allowed. Ewing and Commissioners J.C. Henderson and Earnest Simmons were opposed to the referendum, while Commissioners Tim Fleming and Nancy Schulz were in favor.

A liquor by the drink referendum was previously held in the late '90s and was voted down. The board revisited the issue in 2003 and was opposed to holding another referendum.