Money, votes and liquor in Pigeon Forge [The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.]
(Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 10--PIGEON FORGE -- On Thursday, residents of this city -- and some nonresidents who are registered owners of real estate -- will vote on whether or not liquor by the drink will be allowed to stay.
The campaign signs for and against the measure say much about the divisiveness of the issue here.
Anyone who came to the Election Commission office to early-vote could not have missed the two large green signs that say "Vote FOR Alcohol Tax Revenue For Our Schools."
They would also have noticed a line of smaller signs in between the two larger ones. The smaller ones are white with black lettering. Some say "Vote NO for real liquor control." Others say "Our Kids Are Not For Sale."
If you favor liquor by the drink, you may see the two larger signs as symbolizing a tidal wave of progress, which -- according to that view -- needs to sweep over isolated pockets of a last-century attitude that the smaller signs represent.
Or, if you oppose the liquor proposal, you might view the smaller signs as symbolic of native guerrilla fighters, defying a well-funded mercenary invasion that is symbolized by the larger signs, and already has a foot in the door.
The pro-liquor group Forging Ahead says the city needs to permanently add mixed drinks to keep tax revenues it is losing to nearby Gatlinburg and Sevierville, both of which have liquor by the drink, and to raise money for the three Pigeon Forge schools at the same time.
Pigeon Forge already has 11 restaurants that sell mixed drinks -- at least temporarily. They have state licenses issued after liquor was approved in a Nov. 6 referendum, but before a judge voided that election because nearly 300 ineligible voters were allowed to participate.
The 11 licenses remain valid at least through the referendum. State Alcoholic Beverage Commission Interim Director Keith Bell is not sure what happens to them if liquor by the drink fails.
"That is something I would have to consult with the state attorney general about," he said.
Liquor was voted down in May 2009, again in 2011, then approved in the flawed November vote that was voided.
will be the fourth in as many years for Pigeon Forge. And some voters are getting weary of it.
Jim Bishop, a former Pigeon Forge resident, worked for the anti-liquor group Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF) as an early-voting poll watcher.
"I can't talk to the voters, but I can hear what they are saying," he said.
He said the most common remarks he has overheard are about having to vote repeatedly on the same issue. But he does not know which side any of those making the remarks are on.
Get out the vote
Both sides are focusing on getting supporters to the polls.
Last November's referendum, marred by the balloting errors, was decided by a 100-vote margin. Thursday's revote is expected to be close again, according to leaders on both sides.
Forging Ahead has significantly outspent CCCPF, according to financial disclosures filed at the Election Commission and additional information provided by the two campaigns.
Forging Ahead leaders said they've spent a total of just under $16,000 for the Nov. 6 election -- with more expected to be spent for the March election.
In its latest financial disclosure, CCCPF has reported raising $7,245 and spending $3,311 between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31; and since Jan. 1, it has raised $3,700 and spent $2,500.
Forging Ahead's latest paperwork was overdue for last week's filing deadline.
"I think they are outworking us, too, and they've probably registered more folks than we have," said CCCPF chief Jess Davis. "But I think we have a good chance. A lot of people around here are mad at how this is being done."
Some CCCPF tactics have raised both ire and eyebrows of pro-liquor supporters. There have been newspaper ads featuring images of smashed cars and tombstones. And last Thursday, Davis began a fast he says will last until the polls close.
"Whatever it takes, to show people how important this is," he said.
Both sides have reached out to professionals to help in their campaigns.
Forging Ahead has hired the Knoxville-based public relations firm Moxley Carmichael, as well as a Nashville political consulting firm, The Calvert Street Group.
"We are hospitality professionals, not political or public relations professionals, so we look to them for help and advice in those areas," Forging Ahead Chairman Ken Maples said.
The Calvert Street Group has been criticized in media reports from other parts of the state for allegedly generating exaggerated appearances of grassroots support for a candidate or issue. Maples said he is unaware of those controversies and that the firm has only been offering general advice to Forging Ahead on scheduling, strategy and how to best conduct a campaign.
CCCPF has turned to the Artemus Group for help and advice.
"They reached out to us," Artemus partner Billy Stair said. "They were seeking advice to try and level the playing field, and we gave them some advice, but we have not signed a contract or received any compensation."
The schools factor
Forging Ahead is campaigning heavily on benefits to the city's three schools. The Pigeon Forge Middle School Parent Teacher Organization recently endorsed the liquor proposal, saying that it will generate about $500,000 per year that the state mandates be spent only on the city's three schools.
"I believe very passionately in this," said Jennifer Dyer, treasurer of the PTO group. "I believe that the benefits of what can come from that money will outweigh any negative aspects of having liquor by the drink."
The city's three schools, she said, have relied for too long on private fund-raising efforts to get some things. Liquor tax revenues "can help pay for some of the big-ticket items" that schools need to keep students up with the times, she said.
The schools are part of the Sevier County system, which is funded largely by property taxes and sales taxes. The city provides only small amounts of money to its three schools. Should liquor by the drink pass, all alcohol tax revenues designated for the Pigeon Forge schools "will be above and beyond" normal county funding and will not reduce it, said Karen King, assistant school superintendent for finance.
Some liquor opponents argue that any monetary benefit to schools will be outweighed by the downside of alcohol, especially its negative impact on families and children.
"For every $1 you get from liquor, you can count on there being $3 in expenses for social problems," Davis said.
Belle Island booze
In 2003, plans were announced for the Belle Island Village entertainment complex. It was to include three restaurants with no liquor by the drink.
Pigeon Forge spent $17 million to buy land for a 3,000-vehicle parking lot that would have been convenient for Belle Island visitors, then spent another $6 million constructing the parking lot, adjacent to the parking for LeConte Center, Pigeon Forge's $45 million event center, developed by Darby Campbell and Bob McManus.
Campbell is also a major player in the Belle Island renewal effort and the effort to achieve liquor by the drink in Pigeon Forge. He and McManus are in a group that bought the failed Belle Island project for $10 million, with plans to revive it as a retail and entertainment complex.
When liquor was rejected in the 2011 referendum, Campbell and some others tried to get the state, without a local vote, to allow liquor by the drink in the city's tourist development zone, which included Belle Island.
Legislators balked, but with City Commission approval found a way to put the issue on the Nov. 6 ballot, much sooner than the normal two-year wait between referendum votes on the same issue.
Why is liquor so important to Belle Island now when it was not an issue when the original plan was announced
"If it doesn't pass, it still won't kill the deal, but having it sure would enhance it," Campbell said.
He said it is more important now because chain restaurants with wide name recognition will not come to the area without it.
"Some of the ones we've been talking to have just said, 'Well, y'all call us back if liquor by the drink passes," Campbell said. "Having those name restaurants that everybody recognizes is really more important that having the liquor itself."
Officially, Pigeon Forge Mayor David Wear takes no position on the referendum. But though all of the city's share of alcohol tax revenues must go to the schools, the city would benefit from an overall increase in tax revenues that can help address its debts from the Belle Island-related investments, he said.
"More restaurants with liquor by the drink will draw more tourists, which in turn will generate more overall sales tax revenue that we can draw from to help retire those debts," he said.
1 percent -- again
If liquor by the drink wins by a small margin, Davis said CCCPF may challenge the legality of a series of real-estate transactions some supporters have been using to register voters.
State law allows nonresidents who own real estate in the city to vote in the city election. The limit is two people for the same piece of property, no matter how many share in ownership.
But one person who owns multiple pieces of property can generate two new voters for each parcel by deeding to them a tiny interest in the property. It could be as little as a 1 percent interest.
If such a deed is properly recorded, the Election Commission generally has no choice but to register the new applicant, said CCCPF's attorney, Lewis Howard Jr.
If a person is given, for free, "a (very small) percent of a property simply as a mechanism for that person to vote, and conveys it back to the granter with no consideration, I doubt that is a valid property transaction," Howard said. "This is an issue the courts have not addressed."
Pigeon Forge City Hall, 225 Pine Mountain Road, is the polling place. Voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Because there is only one polling place and only one issue on the ballot, no one expects a repeat of the errors that occurred in the November vote. Election officials say their best and most experienced poll workers will be working the new referendum.
"Since the new election was ordered, it has been the talk of the town," said the election commission's lawyer, Dennis Francis. "We expect that by reshuffling the staff, we have eliminated the human error problems that led the judge to order this new election."
(c)2013 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Visit the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) at www.knoxnews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
[ Back To Technology News's Homepage ]