Sunday alcohol sales in Atlanta could come to a vote Nov. 8

With Atlanta's City Council considering a measure to allow voters to decide on Sunday alcohol sales in stores this fall, proponents say a "yes" vote could set the tone for a debate around Georgia and build momentum for Sunday sales.

But with several large counties holding out until at least next year, it's unclear whether other counties and cities would be pressured into following suit if Atlanta puts the issue on a Nov. 8 ballot.

"Some are going to jump on the bandwagon," said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University. "Others are taking a more skeptical look."

Atlanta is the latest and highest-profile of the approximately 70 city and county governments across the state to either schedule votes on Sunday alcohol sales or to consider doing so.

"People are all positive," said Councilman Kwanza Hall, one of seven sponsors of the ordinance. "I think it's a no-brainer."

Earlier this year, a General Assembly effort to allow communities to vote on Sunday sales was basically given up for dead and then resurrected late in the session. Gwinnett County, the state's second-largest county, has been a particular hotbed with 13 of the county's 15 cities planning to hold November votes on the issue.

Cherokee County's initiative to schedule an alcohol vote for November passed last month with little citizen opposition. Three of Cobb's six cities — Kennesaw, Smyrna and Acworth — have also approved alcohol votes for their November elections.

Proponents hope that a vote in Atlanta would give the Sunday sales effort extra credibility across the metro area.

But money is tight, which has dampened enthusiasm for county-wide votes in Cobb County. Cobb officials weathered criticism earlier this year from residents upset about the nearly $400,000 cost of a single-issue special election. County officials have signaled that they would be more receptive to a county-wide vote next year, when several issues can be tacked onto one ballot.

Fulton County has not taken up the issue. A county-wide vote in has not been proposed in DeKalb, although several cities have scheduled alcohol votes to piggyback on their municipal elections.

Atlanta's vote, if it happens, would be on the same ballot as a referendum on extending a penny sales tax for Atlanta Public Schools, as well as a vote on the vacant Atlanta Board of Education District 2 seat. The Sunday sales measure was initially proposed by Councilman Alex Wan.

Atlanta's example could work in favor of the alcohol sales or could also damage the effort, Swint said. It all depends on how conservative the jurisdiction in question.

"It could be a double-edged sword," he said. "You could have some counties in North Georgia saying, 'Well, Atlanta is doing it -- what does that tell you?'"

Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said a "yes" vote in Atlanta could put pressure on adjacent counties such as DeKalb to approve sales. Otherwise, their grocery and convenience stores stand to lose money, he said.

"The people it affects are the people who compete directly with Atlanta," said Tudor, whose organization represents 2,200 convenience stores.

Karen Bremer, executive director at the Buckhead-based Georgia Restaurant Association, said allowing Sunday sales in Atlanta would help to send a message that responsible alcohol consumption is not taboo.

"We're trying to be a 24-hour city, an international city," she said. "Being able to accommodate people who are used to buying alcohol on Sundays serves to strengthen our spirit of hospitality."

State Sen. John Bulloch, (R-Ochlocknee), who sponsored the legislation allowing votes on Sunday sales, said the initiative is "all about local control and about people having a voice."

But he said he doesn't believe that Sunday sales will necessarily win approval in Atlanta without debate.

"When you get closer to a date when people actually vote, you'll start seeing some opposition and rightly so," Bulloch said. "For every issue, there's two sides. Everybody's going to make up their mind and vote according to what their feeling is."

It is unclear how much Atlanta stands to gain in tax revenue on Sundayl sales. Hall said council members were still waiting for those estimates. But in a time of strained budgets, the measure should generate revenue, he said.

Supporting Sunday sales has not been a priority for Mayor Kasim Reed, said spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs. But Reed does not plan to veto the measure if the City Council votes in favor of bringing a referendum to voters, she said. The public can comment on the issue during the Council's meeting next Tuesday.

So far, Hall said he has not encountered resistance from either liquor store owners, who generally oppose Sunday sales, or deeply religious voters worried about sullying of Sundays.

"The church ladies haven't said anything," he said.