Forging Ahead staying on message

Points to school support, level playing field
Feb. 25, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

Members of Forging Ahead are, as they say in politics, on message. Ask people why they’re involved with the group, which campaigns for liquor by the drink, and you hear polished responses.

“I’m so passionately for this,” said Leslie Thomas, a Pigeon Forge resident who is the group’s co-treasurer. The first reason she cites is the revenue from the state’s 15 percent liquor tax. Because of Pigeon Forge’s status under state law as a Premiere Type Tourist Resort City, half the liquor tax would go to Pigeon Forge schools.

“I seriously considered sending my daughter to Gatlinburg [schools] because they have more opportunities there,” she said. Gatlinburg, which has liquor by the drink, also is a Premiere Resort city. “All of our kids ought to have the same advantages.”

In 2000, Thomas moved to Pigeon Forge from Oak Ridge. “That’s one of the top school systems in the state,” she said. “It was tough to choose.”

Thomas also raises what she calls the choice issue. “Liquor by the drink is legal in most tourist areas,” she said. “When we bring tourists to this area, they don’t understand why they can’t get it.”

“That’s so ridiculous,” Forging Ahead treasurer Bill Duncan said of the tourist issue. “If they want a drink they should be able to get one.”

Duncan is in the lodging business. “A lot guests ask where they can get dinner and drinks. I have to tell them Pigeon Forge sells only beer and wine. That’s not too common in tourist destinations.”

Sevierville resident Pam Smith, who will not be voting in the referendum, mentions another reason that comes up a lot. “It would level the playing field,” she said, referring to the fact that liquor by the drink is legal in Gatlinburg and Sevierville. “We want the business opportunities it would bring to Pigeon Forge.”

All three spoke in interviews at last Tuesday’s Forging Ahead meeting at Comfort Inn & Suites. The group has met weekly since January, when the Nov. 6 vote legalizing liquor by the drink was voided and anew one set.

On March 14, Pigeon Forge residents and property owners will vote on the issue again. Tuesday’s meeting was the group’s last one before early voting began on Friday.

At the meeting, Forging Ahead chairman Ken Maples told members about elements of the group’s final push. Yard signs. Letters to the editor. A radio appearance.

“Our message is probably focused better this time,” Maples said. He spoke to about 25 people in the hotel’s breakfast room. There was a lot of laughter. A few people spoke about the anti-liquor faction. Some of those remarks were conciliatory. Some were tart.

“We’re really going to push early voting,” Maples said. “It’s easier on folks, and we know who’s voted and who hasn’t.” The group is hosting a series of rallies to promote early voting, and it is giving voters rides to the polls.

Members were urged to promote their message on social media. “The more interaction we get from those of you who know how to operate Facebook, the more information we get out,” Maples said. “We get some negative feedback on there, but we get to correct inaccurate statements on Facebook.”

Despite November’s problems, Maples expressed confidence in the voting system. “Those who work at the polls are good people who made honest mistakes,” he said. “We don’t anticipate any issues.”

Forging Ahead members also are working the phones. At the meeting, Mary Jane Henderson, a Pigeon Forge resident since 1958, turned in a call list. “Some of the numbers were no longer in service,” she said.

Henderson mainly supports liquor by the drink because of the schools. “And the jobs it would bring to Pigeon Forge,” she said. “We’re losing all that restaurant business.”

krburns@themountainpress.com