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UPDATED: Downtown Grocery Store Bill Progresses

Ready to buy beer and wine at the downtown Athens grocery store? You’ll have to wait a little longer.

House Bill 517, sponsored by Reps. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville), Regina Quick (R-Athens) and Spencer Frye (D-Athens) would let local governments remove the state’s ban on selling package alcohol within 100 yards of a college campus, paving the way for a grocery store in the wide swath of downtown Athens that’s that close to UGA. It cleared one hurdle Monday, but its progress has since slowed.

Williams emailed Flagpole a statement this afternoon explaining the reasoning behind the bill:

Entering this legislative session, I had no plans whatsoever to introduce ANY legislation during the session, much less any legislation involving alcohol sales. That changed when I learned that there were a couple of grocery store developments looking at intown Athens locations. As has been widely reported, the downtown Athens area has been desirous of a full-service grocery store for some time.

In talking with economic development professionals, our House delegation realized that in today’s economic climate, the ability to sell beer and wine is central to a successful grocery store economic model. And we realized that current Georgia law prohibits the package sale of beer and wine within 100 yards of schools and college campuses. As luck would have it, at least one of the  potential grocery store locations is within 100 yards of the UGA campus. This led to discussion of how we could allow the ACC unified government to utilize “local control” to set an appropriate distance from college campuses for package beer and wine sales—while leaving alone the existing distance requirements for liquor sales, and for alcohol by the drink. This led to HB 517, which simply allows local governments to decide the appropriate distance from college campuses for beer and wine package sales.

For me personally, I consider this to be an economic development issue, a local control issue, and a health and nutrition issue. Our intown residents deserve an opportunity to grocery shop in their local neighborhoods, if they so choose. Residents who do not own automobiles face an extra challenge in shopping for food and in getting that food back to their homes. And the presence of intown grocery shopping options should encourage intown living for those who desire that option.

I will ask the House Rules committee tomorrow morning to place HB 517 on Thursday’s Crossover Day calendar, to allow for House discussion and a vote.

Contrary to what the Athens Banner-Herald says, a Regulated Industries Committee vote yesterday evening did not send the bill to the full House for approval. First it has to clear the Rules Committee. Frye said last night that he hoped for a hearing in Rules this morning, but the committee didn’t take up the bill. 

“Rep. Williams recently brought the bill to the attention of the Speaker and asked him to review it,” said Marshall Guest, House Speaker David Ralston’s press secretary. “The Speaker is aware that there is significant support for the proposal in the Athens community.  As you know, the General Assembly is quickly approaching crossover day, the point in the  legislative session when bills must clear the chamber they originate from.  Even though this critical point in the session is fast approaching, this bill still has a chance to make it to the floor of the House for consideration by the entire body. The Rules Committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow morning to set the calendar for Day 30.”

Technically, the bill will be still be alive on Crossover Day, but the odds of it passing will be much slimmer. Bills that don’t pass one chamber by the session’s fast-approaching 30th day can still be amended onto bills that did.

The Athens-Clarke Commission is set to vote tonight on a resolution supporting HB 517. That could help smooth the way for passage but, given how much the legislature seems to enjoy doing the exact opposite of what Athens wants, it could also be a detriment.