Jonesborough aldermen debate alcohol at events

Jonathan Roberts • Feb 11, 2020 at 6:22 PM

During Monday night’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting in Jonesborough, major differences between the town’s officials over the town’s direction came to the forefront — particularly when it came to allowing alcohol at downtown events.

During the meeting, which had a larger audience than usual due to a school plan-related vote, Vice Mayor Adam Dickson requested a permit for Tennessee Hills Distillery to serve liquor at a St. Patrick’s Day event in downtown Jonesborough be pulled from the board’s consent agenda. During the ensuing discussion, Dickson spoke at length about his concerns with allowing the sale of liquor in the Storytelling Plaza downtown, saying he believes Jonesborough “is not prepared to make this step.”

“For some time in Jonesborough, the plans that have been planned and conducted have had an atmosphere that was conducive to family, and that’s code language for, essentially, non-alcohol,” Dickson said Tuesday afternoon. “The situation last night dealt with mixed drinks at town functions, so I thought it was important to, at least, start a conversation about the path which we’re going.”

As Dickson spoke, Alderman Stephen Callahan — who owns the distillery — bowed his head in silence before responding to Dickson’s concerns, saying that since the business’ founding in 2014, there haven’t been any alcohol-related issues at any of the events it’s been part of in downtown Jonesborough. In an interview with the Press on Tuesday, Callahan said he felt the town had reconciled any issues with allowing liquors at town events, and that he didn’t expect there to be any opposition to the event at Monday’s meeting.

“I do see his side of the ‘argument’ ... but I thought we had got past that,” Callahan said.

The event, which has happened for the past three years, has allowed beer on-site, but this year would be the first that liquor would be sold. Callahan said during the meeting that “if you’re going to allow beer,” the town “needs to do one or the other, all or nothing.” On Tuesday, Callahan reiterated his thoughts.

“To me, it feels like (Dickson) is choosing one and not the other,” Callahan said. “That’s what aggravates me the most and what I can’t get past. I understand people not liking alcohol, but when you choose one over the other it’s just kind of ignorance of the whole deal altogether.”

Dickson, meanwhile, said that allowing beer and wine in downtown were the next steps in the town’s growth when liquor-by-the-drink passed in 2002, and “the inclusion of liquor is going to be the next level,” but that “it’s important, in my mind, that the town have those conversations.” He also added that much of his concern stems from “personal perspective.”

“There’s a balance there,” Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said during the meeting of allowing events with liquor in downtown, “and I think as long as I’m here we’re going to protect downtown — I’d be inclined to support this event; I don’t think it’s much of a change from what we’ve done down here and I trust it will be handled appropriately.”

After more than 20 minutes of discussion, the vote to grant the event permit passed 2-1, with Dickson voting “no,” and Aldermen Terry Countermine and Virginia Causey voting “yes.” Callahan abstained from voting.

And though the permit issue was resolved on Monday, it speaks to a larger issue within the town’s leadership about which direction Jonesborough needs to head going forward. For Dickson, the decision had already been made, this is where Jonesborough was headed and it’s not a matter of stopping it, but proceeding with caution.

“It’s now a matter of, how do we move forward; it’s not a matter of being abrasive or opposite,” Dickson said. “There has been a steady direction in this way, but there’s a need to handle these issues, I think, in a civil, productive and considerate way and that has always been my argument.

“I just don’t think that we’re ready for this move,” Dickson said at the meeting. 

Callahan said he feels the town is ready for the move, citing the election results in 2018 when he garnered the highest vote total of any candidate.

“Just because we’re the oldest town doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in our old ways,” Callahan said. “I think it’s just a sign of the times. When I was running for election, I don’t think it was any big secret what I did in town and I got more votes than anybody — and that’s not taking a shot at anyone, but just says that I think the town’s ready to go in the direction we need to go.” 

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