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By TERRI LIKENS
Art Austin, owner of Cheers of Kingston, isn’t feeling too cheery lately.
His liquor store stands to lose substantial business as a result of a bill that could allow the sale of wine at food stores.
Austin knows all too well what that kind of competition can do to a small business. He ran the IGA in Harriman until big stores like Wal-Mart and Food City put him out of buiness.
The bill would “take 30 to 35 percent of my business and give it to the biggest retailor in the world,” Austin said.
His store, which employs three people, was among the first two liquor stores to open in Kingston.
After three years, he still hasn’t turned a profit, he said. But he’s getting close — if the bill proposed by state Sen, Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, does not pass.
Ketron and supporters say the bill would change what they call Tennessee’s “archaic” liquor laws and allow wine sales at stores that sell food. They say the change would make wine sales more convenient and therefore lead to more sales, increasing state tax revenues.
Backing the bill is the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association.
Laura Overstreet, the owner of Laura’s Liquor and Wine Store, said the cost in Roane County for the bill’s passage would be jobs.
Hers was the first liquor store in Roane County, opening in 1993. She now employs nine people.
Overstreet is already expecting a blow from the recent approval of ballot measures allowing the sale of liquor in Crossville and Rockwood. Stores in those cities have not yet opened, but are in the process.
Rockwood City Recorder Jim Hines said the bill has “raised concerns” from the two residents who won the lottery to open stores.
Hines added the city — which includes Wal-Mart — would likely gain tax revenue if it passes.
The loss of wine sales to groceries and other stores will mean Overstreet will have to make cuts in a dismal economy.
“I’ll have to lay off more than one,” she said. “It’s an assault on small business, is what it is.”
“This is the American dream,” he said of his store.
He said he’s tired of hearing politicians speak of taking care of small businesses when they are on the campaign trail, then turning their backs when they are elected.
Overstreet said the bill is worded in such a way that it won’t just be grocery stores but any store that sells bread that would be able to sell bottled and boxed wine.
She and Austin said stores that sell a range of goods are not only less regulated than liquor stores, but also have something to fall back on if they lose their license.
“If we get shut down (for underage alcohol violations), we have nothing to sell,” Overstreet said.
“We take our jobs very seriously,” she added. “We have to.”
She also noted that food stores won’t be adding jobs if they take on wine sales. They’ll likely use the same number of employees.
Roane County liquor store owners last week met with state Sen. Ken Yager in his Harriman office on Friday to seek his help.
With them was Thad Cox, a representative of Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association and a Knoxville liquor retailer.
Yager, Overstreet said, said he had not read the bill and made no commitment.
Similar bills failed to pass in Tennessee in 2007 and 2008.
It was put off for further study until December 2008, when the Senate alcoholic beverage subcommittee reopened hearings to make a recommendation to the 2009 legislative session.
The bill defines retail outlets eleigible for wine sales as a “grocery store, shop, supermarket, warehouse-type seller, club, outlet or other seller” of food
It also requires them to sell “fresh or processed meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, fresh fruit and produce, baked goods and baking ingredients, canned goods and dessert items.”