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Liquor licensees — changing the rules in the middle of the game?

citysealAt tonight’s City Council meeting some rules got changed in the middle of the game.  That was unsportsmanlike — and it was not business-friendly.

Oak Ridge has an ordinance (dating back nearly 50 years) requiring that owners and operators of retail liquor establishments (liquor stores) must be city residents, unless Council votes to waive the requirement. And Council has routinely waived that residency requirement for everyone who requests a waiver. I’m not aware that anyone was ever denied a waiver — and very few liquor sellers actually live in the city.

Since we don’t require owners of any other type of business to live in the city and since the residency requirement hasn’t been enforced, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it on the books. It’s just one of several antiquated ordinances related to liquor that need to be updated (a topic I’ve discussed with legal staff). But we have to live with it for now.

Tonight Council considered a request for a residency waiver and a “certificate of good moral character” from two young men (I think they are brothers) who purchased a long-operating local liquor store and needed city council approval in order to get a state license. All the usual checking of police records, etc., had been done to verify that they met the legal requirements for “good moral character,”  and one of the young men even told us that they used to live in Oak Ridge and hoped to move back here (from Knox County) after getting into business here.

I expected they would receive the approvals that are routinely granted to liquor license applicants, but it didn’t happen. One Council member said he wanted to support local small business, and he wasn’t sure he likes  the residency requirement, but he would vote against a waiver because he didn’t like the idea of waiving the residency requirement. He said he understood that it had been waived in the past, but he had never voted for a waiver and he didn’t want to start now. Another Council member apparently agreed with him and voted not to grant the waiver. Two “no” votes was enough to defeat the resolution because it needed 4 votes to pass, and there were only 5 Council members voting (Councilwoman Trina Baughn was absent and Mayor Warren Gooch had recused himself due to a possible conflict of interest).

So Council changed the rules in the middle of the game for these young men. And contrary to that Councilman’s recollection, he had voted for waivers previously. As recently as March of this year, he voted “yes” when 6 members of Council voted to waive the residency requirement for 7 applicants for new or renewed licenses. (It’s recorded in the minutes of that meeting.)

So two young men who invested in a local small business and were eager to get started are being told “no” because of Council members who decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. In my book, that’s arbitrary regulation — the exact opposite of “being business-friendly.” I hope that this action doesn’t lead to the closure of the store these young men bought.

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6 Comments

  1. Emilee Smith says:

    I was very disappointed in the votes of these two council members. How does them denying these young men the waiver help Oak Ridge? It actually hurts Oak Ridge. The sales tax would stay in Oak Ridge and they stated they were hoping to move back to Oak Ridge. Both of these councilmen are small business owners and have voted for wivers in the past. Look at the minutes. Shame on Councilmen Chinn and Hope for denying these young men a residency waiver, potentially sending a negative image to other small businesses wanting to do business in Oak Ridge. These antiquated regulations need to be removed so this embarassment never happens again. Thank you Ellen, Councilmen Hensley and Callison for voting to waive the residency requirement and allow these young men to operate in Oak Ridge.

  2. Linda Mabry says:

    Actually, there is one locally owned Liquor Store…
    Lizz’s Wine and Spirits. Life long resident Aaron Wells currently owns this store. While we are discussing being ‘business friendly’, how about all of our current board members representing the city make it a point to support our local merchants? There is absolutely no need to shop elsewhere when we can purchase from a local resident and keep our money at home.
    Two business owners in my immediate family.. My son, Aaron and my husband Bib Mabry owner/operator Great Moments in Glass.

  3. Linda Mabry says:

    I need to add Hilltop Package Store to the list of locally owned stores. My apologies for leaving them out.

  4. Kate Groover says:

    Unbelievable! Shouldn’t City Council be encouraging small business in Oak Ridge? And Chuck Hope? Shame on you! Aren’t you a small business owner? This is exactly the reason that Oak Ridge has the reputation of being “unfriendly” to new business. Seems to me that both Mr. Hope and Mr. Chinn have voted for small business owners who don’t live in Oak Ridge in the past. Might be interesting to know what they find so offense about these two young men. Good for the other liquor stores who are owned locally. Wish them luck! But competition is good for business and we need new business not another empty building. Mr. Hope definitely will not be getting votes from me or my husband. How can anyone support a councilman to a new term when he can’t support new business in town?

  5. It is also a concern to me that now other owners have had their worries added to. Where in March Mr. Chinn and Mr. Hope voted without comment to grant variance to 7 of the 9 owners up for renewal (the other 2 were OR residents,) now those folks, scrambling to compete with grocery stores, must worry about losing the variances they have previously been granted at next year’s renewal date. I have already heard speculation that the two council members are prejudiced and I don’t think that is so. I do think there is another reason behind their sudden conversion to this position.

  6. Ellen Smith says:

    It’s clear to me that City Council needs to act quickly to repeal this ordinance — well before any of the existing liquor licenses comes up for renewal. These businesspeople shouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of being shut down by the whim of City Council.

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