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White County alcohol sales proceed with some caution

County officials can’t estimate possible revenues from taxes

POSTED: March 4, 2009 12:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

A customer leaves Chattahoochee Grocery on Wednesday afternoon along Ga. 115 in White County. The small grocery, owned by Joe Desai, has applied for a license to sell beer and wine. Before making the decision, Desai asked his regular customers if they would still frequent his store.

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After being rejected by voters several times, a referendum finally passed in November allowing beer and wine to be sold in unincorporated White County.

The new ordinance, which went into effect Jan. 1, could generate a little extra cash for some businesses that have been struggling in the slow economy.

“For us, it’s an additional revenue stream,” said Jeff Gulle, owner of the country store at Skylake in northern White County. “The store has never been profitable. If I could just break even, I could keep the store open year-round.”

Gulle was among the first business owners to apply for a county alcohol license. His store has a small cafe that sells items such as pizza and ice cream, and he wants to be able to serve beer when the deli reopens in the spring.

“I’m not much of a drinker, but I am a businessperson,” he said. “I’m willing to pay the $1,200 for the license, if it will make a difference.”

County officials also hope the ordinance will benefit their bottom line. “There’s no way to predict how much total revenue will be generated,” said White County Clerk Jean Welborn. “We don’t know how many people are going to apply, and the cost of the license varies according to the type of business.”

The annual fee is $800 for retailers who sell alcohol in packaged form, $1,200 for those who sell it for on-site consumption, and $1,500 for farm wineries.

There’s also a $150 application fee, and a $50 per person charge for a background check and fingerprinting.

In addition, the county will get sales tax when a customer purchases alcohol, and excise tax on the inventory.

“There will be a good bit of excise tax at first because they’ll be stocking up (on beer and wine to sell),” said Welborn.

Responding to some residents’ concerns that alcohol sales would lead to “moral decay,” the White County Commission made sure that it would not be easy to get an alcohol license. To avoid attracting bars and strip clubs to the county, establishments that sell alcohol must also sell food. And they can’t be located too close to a church or school.

“It’s a very important issue for our county,” said Carol Jackson, a former state senator and chairwoman of the newly created White County Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “We feel that the people have spoken, and our job is to make sure it’s done right. The hoops you have to jump through (to get a license) are much more rigorous than a lot of people think.”

After meeting all the requirements, paying the fees and undergoing a background check, applicants may be approved for a county license but still have to get a state alcohol license before they can start selling beer or wine. Sales of hard liquor are prohibited.

The first license granted by the Alcoholic Beverage Commission was atypical; the White County Chamber of Commerce got a temporary permit for its “Taste of the Town” fundraiser, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Unicoi State Park Lodge.

As for permanent licenses, three have been approved so far: the Skylake store; Express Mart No. 5 on U.S. 129; and the Chattahoochee Grocery on Ga. 115. Three other applications are under consideration.

Joe Desai, owner of the Chattahoochee Grocery, said he had misgivings about applying for a license.

“I debated whether or not I should do it,” he said. “I don’t drink, personally, and I really didn’t want to bring in the alcohol. But I asked my customers what they thought, and 95 percent said they were in favor of it.”

Desai said he had to face a financial reality. “I feel like I need to do this,” he said. “I’m right near the Habersham County line, so I lose business because people are going outside White County (to buy alcohol).”

Restaurants in unincorporated White County also lost business to the tourist town of Helen, which has always had an exemption to sell alcohol even though the county is technically “dry.”

“I felt it was unfair competition,” said Hamilton Schwartz, owner of the Stovall House restaurant in Sautee.

The Stovall House is considered a “fine dining” establishment, and Schwartz said tourists are often surprised when they’re told they can’t order wine with their dinner, though bringing their own bottle is allowed.

“It’s been frustrating not to be able to pair wine with food,” said Schwartz, who plans to apply for a license soon.

“I’ve been waiting 25 years for this,” he said. “There’s no question that it will make a difference. We’ll be able to do some fundraising events that we couldn’t do before. And I think (the ordinance) may bring in some new businesses to White County that wouldn’t have come here otherwise.”

Some existing businesses will have to get a license whether they want to or not. White County’s wineries already have tasting rooms, because wine has special status as an agricultural product.

But now that an ordinance has been passed, the wineries will have to get the same county license as any other business that sells alcohol.

“We were sort of grandfathered in, but we still have to go through the process and pay this fee,” said Steve Gibson, general manager of the Habersham Winery near Helen. “There is no advantage to us under this ordinance. It doesn’t change anything we can or can’t do.”

But Gibson said he’s happy that the public finally voted in favor of the new law. “I never could see a valid argument against it,” he said.

“We think it’s a good thing for the county, good for tourism and revenue. The restaurants have been struggling for years.”

The only community that will see no benefit from the ordinance is the city of Cleveland, which remains dry. All of White County’s major grocery stores are located within the Cleveland city limits, so residents still won’t be able to buy beer or wine at a supermarket.



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