commentary (2006-34)

A downtown liquor store is a legitimate aim

Pass the Bottle…Amendment

by Barry Henderson

The movement to allow for a downtown liquor store inched closer to its goal last week, when City Council passed an amendment to the city’s 44-year-old liquor control ordinance that would allow for a package store on Gay Street.

Well, good. The amendment should pass handily on second reading, despite reputed opposition from competing liquor interests outside the downtown and false worries that the store may be detrimental somehow to the plight of the homeless.

It simply removes parks from the ordinance as it applies to the central business district. It would still prohibit liquor stores from locations within 500 feet of funeral parlors, churches or recreational facilities, even in the downtown area.

The result would be to allow for an upscale wine and liquor store at 412 S. Gay Street, opposite the new Mast General Store, for which a state license has already been approved for an

It was not, by a few feet, and it left the only possible package store location downtown a narrow strip in the 100 block of S. Gay, where no one was considering such an investment. Yet getting the exception made for the downtown was like pulling teeth from the heads of some members of City Council, who voted 6-3 for the limited change on first reading.

This is a legitimate proposition. A wine and liquor store is an obvious and desirable facet of the retail rebirth in a downtown that is re-establishing itself as a residential area, as well as the core of Knoxville business and government operations and the site of an expansive new convention center.

A high-end wine and liquor store will offer a downtown option to the workers and the business and professional people who may wish to pick up a bottle on their way home for cocktails and dinner. It is even more of a convenience to those new residents who are living downtown in substantial, if not posh, circumstances in lofts or condominiums.

There is little risk that a winehead will brownbag a $40 bottle of single-malt scotch or a $16 bottle of Shiraz and sit sipping it on a Krutch Park bench. Yet that is one of the fears raised by law enforcement officers. The homeless persons who drink in alleys or under viaducts in the downtown area have little trouble, apparently, securing the beer or cheap wine or liquor to do so. Homelessness is the problem, and it is one which the city is attempting to address. Wine and liquor, and especially that in bottles to be carried home, is not. There is no such proscription against selling liquor, wine or beer by the drink in restaurants or bars near parks, so what is the issue, really?

There was the assertion that letting the approved applicant have a liquor store would be granting a monopoly. That’s a little far-fetched. The restrictions in the 1962 law practically dictate that only one liquor store will be allowed downtown, and the people who have designed an upscale store for the Gay Street location were there first. If encouragement of competition is to be pursued, lift the other limitations.

Teetotaling can’t be at the core of the opposition. There aren’t enough people in the downtown vicinity who are fitfully opposed to others’ drinking of alcohol to fill Thompson Boling Arena. There must be some sort of anti-competitive spirit at the root of it, fueled by other package store operators, perhaps. Who else would be dead set against a new store in a convenient, non-controversial location?

Downtown residents seem nearly unanimous in their support of the store and the amendment to permit it. That’s unsurprising, but it should weigh heavily on those who are making the decision to adjust the old ordinance, which was adopted with suburban neighborhoods in mind. Urban living, indeed urbanity, is enhanced by the ability of community members to walk to a store to obtain a bottle of good wine to enjoy with a nice dinner at home.

One would hope that the three members of Council who stood against the enabling amendment would reconsider on second reading and put the park exception for the central business district into effect by unanimous vote just because it is a reasonable and proper gesture toward the continuing redevelopment of Knoxville’s downtown.