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White County residents will decide on alcohol sales
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White County voters will decide Nov. 4 if the sale of beer and wine, both by package and by the drink, should be allowed in unincorporated portions of the county.

Currently, only the city of Helen allows the sale of alcohol. Both the city of Cleveland, the county seat, and the remainder of the county are dry.

Chris Nonnemaker, the Republican county commission chairman, says potential revenue is going to neighboring counties.

"We have sales tax dollars going to other counties," Nonnemaker said. "The stores at the Hall County line have some of the highest sales in the state."

Nonnemaker said the decision on sales is left up to the local authority, in this case the county commission. In years past, commissioners issued beer and wine licenses, but later rescinded the local ordinance.

"Times have changed, and we’re looking at a different era now," he said. "Habersham, Hall, and Lumpkin counties have seen big retail box stores come to their county. White County has become an island to itself."

But a group has begun an organized effort to oppose the referendum. Citizens for Continued Family Values has registered its effort with the State Ethics Commission.

Michael Wilkes of Helen, chairman of the group, said they already have begun a letter-writing campaign in the local newspaper. They plan to run newspaper and radio advertising and produce yard signs urging a "no" vote on the referendum.

"We are for family values and not just against the alcohol," Wilkes said. "We’re not against individuals, we’re just against the issue of this referendum being passed."

Wilkes said the group has broad-based community support beyond churches, and there are plans to continue the organization after the election.

The commission placed the referendum on the ballot by a 2-1 vote. Nonnemaker and Commissioner Joe Campbell voted for the measure and Commissioner Craig Bryant voted against it.

Nonnemaker supports the measure.

"My personal view is that in America, the age of deciding if you want to purchase alcohol is 21, and I don’t think any government should pass laws that inhibit the right to make that decision," Nonnemaker said. "Government can’t legislate morality."

But Wilkes takes a different view.

"More alcohol will bring harm to the family," he said. "We’re doing this for the families."

In addition to sales taxes, Nonnemaker said the county would gain license fees from the retailers.

"A license fee for beer and wine would be in the $2,000 range for a year. That should generate $100,000 a year and would pay for three sheriff’s deputies," Nonnemaker said.

He also disputes the notion that the referendum would clear the way for "beer bars" in the county, saying that depending on the pouring license requirements, restaurant would have to generate as much as 70 percent of their revenue from food in order to qualify.

Other than Helen, beer and wine is sold at Unicoi Lodge and Smithgall Woods Conference Center, both owned by the state and licensed under a separate state law. Wine by the glass also is sold at several wineries in White County.

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