COVINGTON, Ga. — Planning and Zoning Manager Mark Beechuk said statistics showed in 1990 there were less than 50 breweries located in the U.S., but today that number had dramatically increased to 6,500.
In Georgia alone, there are approximately 69 breweries, according to a 2018 report from JLL Atlanta Research.
City Manager Scott Andrews said some of those breweries, or even brewpubs and distilleries, were interested in locating in Covington, but it would take the city council’s approval.
During its Nov. 15 meeting, the Covington City Council discussed a proposed text amendment to the city’s ordinance that would allow for breweries, brewpubs and distilleries to operate within city limits.
“A lot of projects recently have shown an interest in brewpubs, and it’s something that we’ve even heard some of the development community mention,” Andrews said. “We’ve had some talk and some interest of different breweries, but we just don’t have our ducks in a row to recruit someone in the way that we might be able to. We’ve had some buildings looked at already, and we just were unable to secure that. It didn’t make sense for the development community and some of the places we looked at.
“So this is less about the stigma that comes with alcohol and more of an economic development driver,” he added. “More of a promoter of adding vibrancy to the community.”
Beechuk said the proposal was centered on two major changes.
“The big distinction here between what we currently have in the code versus what we’re asking [the council] to look at is the difference between the food,” he said. “So brewpubs would have food. We’ve [added] that in here that they would be allowed a few more places. They’re actually allowed to sell more alcohol because they have more food.”
Current minimum food to booze sales ratio requirement was 50-50, he said. Beechuk clarified that on top of any city ordinance, breweries, brewpubs and distilleries were “heavily regulated” by state and federal rules.
“And then the other difference is that breweries and distilleries are manufacturing facilities that are allowed to sell on site,” Beechuk continued. “So we’re not asking you guys to put a bar ordinance in here, which I don’t think would go over as well. We’re asking you guys to look at the craftsmanship of this industry. The way they are used for event space, gathering space, [and] functions, in the way they can help projects grow and be the focal point of a project.”
Before any discussion among council members was had, Councilman Kenneth Morgan said he believed the council should table the issue. He felt the group needed more time to analyze the proposed text amendment before making a decision.
“I’m not saying it’s something that can’t be done,” Morgan clarified. “I just feel like we need to vet it a little bit more as a group, and my suggestion … would be that until we can actually get together as a council and kind of vet through it a little bit with you and Scott that we table this item until we can get through that process.”
Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett disagreed. She felt the council could comfortably make a decision to move forward with the process.
“As someone who owns part of a distillery, I can assure you that the process to go about to get your licensing to be able to do this far outweighs anything that you could possibly imagine,” she said. “The checks and balances on it — what we let slide tonight with liquor licenses concerns me far more than distilleries and breweries. It’s something that’s regulated by the feds. It’s regulated by the state. I think that it’s something that we can go ahead and comfortably move forward with because its not something that’s going to roll in here and roll out real fast. I have a bigger problem with some of the people that got licenses tonight that I know don’t go 50-50 on the food and booze. That’s my personal opinion. There are way more checks and balances with distilleries and breweries than there are with your day-to-day open container.”
But Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams was in agreement with Morgan’s point of view.
“I, too, feel that, because of the culture, I would like to know more about it,” she said. “I want to get a little bit more informed about it so I can make an informed decision.”
Williams said she believed the council would be moving too fast if voted on during the Nov. 15 meeting.
Mayor Steve Horton later asked if the “plan” was “to just be a place to hang out and drink?”
Beechuk said it was “certainly a component of it” but said these establishments weren’t likened to a bar or saloon.
“Almost all of the ones I’ve ever been to are family-oriented, gathering space type places,” he said.
“I probably haven’t been to those,” Horton replied. “I don’t know how many of y’all have worn a uniform with a badge on it and went to a club or somewhere there’s been a bad altercation or somebody hurt or killed while alcohol has been involved, but I have. And, you know, it’s not necessarily against alcohol, I just think that if you make an environment that all they got to do is stand around and drink, you might not have a problem everyday, but one day you’re going to have a problem. And you can’t take back. You can’t unring that bell. And so that’s a concern to me.
“I have heard some of those [developers] that have said, ‘Well I’d put this there or that there’ if they could, but they can’t today the way the ordinance is written,” the mayor added. “But what I do know is that there’s people lined up to develop here right now. And we’re sitting here trying to figure out how we’re going to deal with traffic and manage the growth… I don’t see anybody leaving because we can’t do distilleries, brewpub, breweries, but I have young people and people of different ages say that they were concerned with the kind of traffic that we’ve got. Said they moved here from somewhere else to get away from all of that. Might have to move somewhere else.”
Horton said he felt like it would go against his conscience not to speak his opinion on the issue, despite not having a vote unless a tie among the council.
“I tend to think, my biggest concern is managing growth and managing traffic instead of worrying about how to make it easier for somebody to drink,” Horton said. “We’ve got people sitting all over the Square … that are able to eat and drink and go about their business. If you were talking about restaurants, we’re already set up to handle those. But if you’re talking about just a place to stand around and chit chat and drink, I personally don’t think its a good idea. In fact, I think it’s a real bad idea and especially a real bad idea for Covington.”
As a point of clarification, Beechuk said he did not believe a brewpub could be located in Covington under current code.
Baggett said it was in her experience that most people who visited a distillery were not there to drink, but to see the manufacturing process. She said the distillery she partly owns does not allow people to drink.
Councilwoman Susie Keck said she had been to a brewpub and described the environment as “not where people go to drink too much.” She said it was often a place young adults could go to eat, drink a beer and let their kids play.
After much discussion, Williams said she still believed the council should discuss the issue further, possibly in work session.
“This is big. This is huge,” she said. “I’ve talked about the culture of our community. We need to take that into consideration. Even though we’re growing, we’re changing, people moving with different philosophies and ideas about life in general … we also have to think about the general population of our community and the culture that we have here. Every city is different, and the culture of Covington is different from metro Atlanta — not that we would deny this or prohibit this … but I would like to know more about it so I can make an informed decision about it … I just can’t vote not knowing that much about it.”
Morgan then motioned to table the matter to Jan. 18. The motion was approved 4-2.
The city council’s next meeting is Monday, Dec. 13 — its final regularly scheduled meeting of the year.