By Brad Hicks

For months, members of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen have discussed and recommended changes to the town’s code that would make the downtown area more conducive to the establishment of restaurants serving alcohol, taprooms and breweries.

These amendments cleared another hurdle on Monday, April 24, as, during its regular meeting, the board unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance amendment that would abolish alcohol-related distant requirements within Erwin’s downtown overlay district, as well as the first reading of an amendment pertaining to the serving of alcohol at special events.

Current municipal code states beer permits may not be granted to businesses located within 200 feet of an established church or school.

The proposed amendment states the 200-foot requirement is “unreasonably restrictive” within the town’s downtown overlay district, which was adopted in 2012, and would end the requirement only within this district.

“What we found is if a church located right now in the middle of downtown, with that distance, any restaurant or anyone coming that wanted to sell alcohol would not be allowed to, which a 200-foot radius would take out almost the entire middle of downtown,” said Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff.

The amendment would take effect upon approval of the alteration’s second and final reading.

Even if the ordinance amendment is given final approval, Rosenoff said discretion on the issuance of beer permits would still lie with the Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of Erwin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The second amendment to gain first-reading approval Monday evening relates to alcohol at special events. The town’s current code provides officials with some discretion in allowing the serving of alcohol at special events and outdoor events held within the town, but Rosenoff said more specific language was needed in the town’s ordinance.

“Basically, when we’re having our festivals and different activities, currently the municipal code says under ‘Alcohol’ that the board has the discretion and authority to do certain things to permit beer,” Rosenoff said, “but, seeing the (Erwin Great Outdoors Festival) and other things happening, this has been a work in progress to basically change the code and add it in there to where there is a process to allow, at certain times, alcohol for outdoor activity or special events.”

The amended code states that it shall be unlawful for a person to drink or consume, or have an opened container of beer or liquor on any public roadway, park, school grounds or other public place “except in a permitted outdoor use area with a permitted special event or town sponsored activity, or in a permitted outdoor use area with a restaurant or establishment with a current alcoholic beverage commission permit and town beer permit.”

Again, Rosenoff said the town’s Beverage Board would retain the discretion to issue permits should the proposed amendment pass on second and final reading.

Like the distance requirement change, the special events ordinance would require passage on two readings before taking effect. The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen will consider the second readings of the ordinance amendments at a future date, possibly as soon as its next meeting.

The pair of changes were discussed by town officials during a work session held in the early part of March and were again discussed by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen during its March 27 meeting. The Erwin Beverage Board during its April 10 meeting voted to recommend the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s approval of the ordinance alterations.

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The board also approved paying the full cost needed to place a sign along Interstate 26 to notify them of Erwin’s downtown antique district.

This matter was discussed, but not acted upon, during the board’s April 10 meeting. Prior to that meeting, town officials received a letter from Joey Lewis, co-owner of the Valley Beautiful Antique Mall in downtown Erwin. In his letter, Lewis wrote that it was time to renew the lease on the sign, and he sought the town’s financial assistance.

As Lewis explained in his letter and during Monday’s meeting, the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, which had traditionally paid half of the lease amount to the state to maintain the sign along I-26, would no longer be providing funding for the sign.

“The sign had been up since 2003 and different antique merchants downtown had always paid for half and then the Chamber paid for the other half,” Lewis said Monday. “The Chamber told me they had voted that they could no longer give any funding towards the project. That’s why I proposed it this way.”

Because the state had not received any indication from the Chamber as to what it intended to do with the sign, the sign was taken down on March 15, Lewis said. 

The board was set Monday to consider appropriating $701.50 for the sign, which represents around half of the cost of the one-year lease, but Alderman Mark Lafever moved that the Town of Erwin cover the entire $1,403 for the lease.

“I’ve thought about it since the last meeting, and I feel like the downtown antique district sign is not going to benefit one person,” Lafever said. “It’s going to benefit all the people down there, and it’s going to benefit the town in return.”

Lafever’s motion was unanimously approved, and the funding for the sign would be spent during the current fiscal year. The alderman added he would like to eventually see the downtown antique district sign redesigned to match other signage the town is working on for its downtown district.

The town will provide a check to the Chamber of Commerce for the sign, which the Chamber will then provide to the state, Lewis said. Lewis said state officials advised once that payment has been received, the sign can be reinstalled within two weeks.

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Also discussed during Monday’s meeting was a proposal previously presented by Eugene Brackins, owner of Brackins Machine Shop. Brackins’ business has outgrown its current location on Casey Jones Road, and he previously approached the town to see if it could offer any help. The two sides discussed the possibility of allowing Brackins to set up shop within the town’s Public Works building through a lease agreement while Brackins would look to sell his current building for $1.2 million.

Brackins told the board he was hoping to secure a larger facility that would allow for expansion, as he is set to begin parts production within the next three weeks, with work increasing in the next two to three months.

“I’d rather go ahead and be setting up into a place to where I could set up my production lines and everything else and begin instead of having to try to move right in the middle of when business is ramping up,” Brackins said.

But, as officials discussed Monday, this move is unlikely to happen.

“Since our discussion with Mr. Brackins, we have found out that we cannot lease the building, the Public Works building, without having to go back and pay taxes. We would no longer be tax exempt,” said Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley.

Rosenoff said the current Erwin Public Works building was paid for utilizing a portion of a $1.3 million loan taken out through the Tennessee Municipal League’s Municipal Bond Fund. That loan was taken out in 2009, and the town has another 16 years to pay on it.

Rosenoff said he recently presented TML officials with the Brackins scenario and, among the issues they pointed out in their response, was that the Public Works building is considered a “public project.” Because of this borrower of Municipal Bond Funding may not use the facility except for public purposes.

Leasing the Public Works building to a private person or entity, Rosenoff said, could result in the loan becoming taxable.

Also present at Monday’s meeting was Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County. Engle said there are several local properties, including one on South Industrial Drive, currently available for lease.

“There are other properties in the county, long and short, that would be available for lease that would not encumber the city in the way that this Public Works deal would,” Engle said. “I would encourage the city to explore another lease option on another privately-held piece of property, if possible.”

Engle added the EDB could assist Brackins by marketing his current shop, including marketing the property through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Hensley suggested that Engle, Brackins and other officials continue discussions to explore possible resolutions.

In other business, the board approved adoption of an update to the town’s building codes to bring these codes in compliance with the state’s minimum codes. The town had been operating under the 2006 codes, but the state of Tennessee previously adopted the 2012 codes. Rosenoff said this required that the town update its codes to match those of the state.

“In so doing, the codes that we have are simply being updated,” Rosenoff said. “We did not go with the most restrictive in the codes. If the codes allowed for exceptions to be made, then we followed suit. We took a long, hard look mostly at Greeneville, Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, and so these are the minimum requirements of the codes that we have to adopt, not necessarily the maximum or most restrictive.”