GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A beer garden at the Appalachian Fair isn’t going to happen this month, but the mere possibility that it could have has created a political firestorm in the Washington County mayoral race.

Challenger James Reeves, an independent, says in a campaign ad that Mayor Joe Grandy “and his donors want beer at the fair.” Grandy told News Channel 11 the mayor has no say in decisions about where beer can be sold, that he personally opposes alcohol at the fair and that he’s considering legal action against Reeves for suggesting otherwise.

“This Appalachian Fair beer promotion by the mayor (narrative) is absolutely false,” Grandy said Tuesday, hours after releasing a statement denying his support for beer sales at the fair and saying he was considering a libel lawsuit against Reeves or his campaign. “It’s a lie. It’s just a total lie.” 

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy (WJHL photo)

The issue arose after the July 25 Washington County Commission meeting, when county commissioner and beer board chairman Freddie Malone announced that Tennessee Hills Brewstillery had applied for a permit to operate a beer garden at the fair, which runs Aug. 22-27. Malone told commissioners the beer board, which only meets when it has business to consider, would review the matter Aug. 3.

“If he didn’t support it as the mayor he should have stood up and said something then,” Reeves said of Grandy during a Tuesday interview. “And then you look into it and you realize that there’s a couple donors that are in support of it and going through the process for applying for it that have given him $1,600 each.”

Within hours, the Reeves campaign was tying the issue to Grandy. The “Joe and his donors want beer at the fair” line is from a video ad Reeves posted on his James Reeves for Mayor Facebook page at 4:40 p.m. Monday. Reeves did tell News Channel 11 he plans to amend the ad’s language in its references to the beer issue.

Tennessee Hills owners Scott Andrew and Stephen Callahan each donated $1,600 to Grandy’s campaign in late April, before the Republican primary (Reeves is running as an independent).The ad criticized Grandy over a range of issues and included the phrase “lies for votes.”

In reality the county mayor has no role in deciding any issues related to beer, and Grandy said Tuesday his lack of comment about a beer board agenda item doesn’t have anything to do with his opinion about what is or isn’t appropriate at the fair.

“I absolutely oppose alcohol at the Appalachian Fair,” Grandy said. “That’s the greatest family event in our community.”

But Reeves generally stood by his claims, including repeating the unsupported contention that Grandy is willing to be untruthful in the pursuit of political gain.

“Maybe I should have put ‘does Joe and his donors support it (beer at the fair),’ and then I wouldn’t be standing here now,” Reeves said. “But sometimes you hit a little bit to say, ‘yeah, come on out and oppose it.’ You know, but Joe lies for votes all the time.”

A Fair question: How did this all start?

News Channel 11 reached out to the Appalachian Fair for information and learned that the fair’s board first began discussing the possibility of beer sales as an additional revenue stream nearly a year ago. The possibility became more pronounced when member Rusty Mabe presented a “Beer Garden Report” at the board’s June meeting, according to meeting minutes.

James Reeves, independent candidate for Washington County mayor. (WJHL photo)

Mabe said Tennessee Hills was proposing a 40-foot by 40-foot tent that would only allow people over 21 to enter and buy beer, which would have to stay inside the area. Tennessee Hills would pay for all insurance and other costs and hoped to use the former Civitan concession area.

Mabe said the company had committed to splitting its profits with the fair board, which is a non-profit, giving them 30% of the total. He said he’d spoken at length with the manager of the Tennessee Valley Fair, which has featured a beer garden for more than five years and is held in Knoxville each September.

Mabe said Callahan and Mabe had said they would impose their own rules that were stricter than the ones at the Knoxville fair.

The board’s Preston Ayres said he also had spoken to Tennessee Valley Fair representatives and learned that fair operates three beer gardens.

“(Ayres) stated that it has not impacted their ‘Family atmosphere,'” the minutes read. “It has also cut down on people trying to sneak alcohol in on the grounds. He also stated that they did not promote it at their fair.”

Ayres eventually moved that the fair try the concept on a one-year trial basis and the board approved the motion 15-7. Tennessee Hills moved forward with an on-premises beer permit application July 19.

Then came the reality of the county’s beer regulations.

“When the applicant applied for a beer garden at the fair they run into the 2,000-foot rule,” Appalachian Fair Board Chairman Rick Storey said, referring to the distance such a special event set-up would have to be from a church or school.

In the end, the fairgrounds was found to have only one small area, out of the mainstream of walking traffic, that was far enough from either a church or a school to fall within the rules for event-based beer sales.

“It was not something that the fair board I think felt even comfortable in doing,” he said. “You’re stuck right down next to the demolition derby and everything like that.”

Between the July 25 commission meeting and Aug. 1, the application was withdrawn.

Speaking of demolition derby

The two candidates, who engaged in a close race in the 2018 election (Grandy took 51.8% of the vote to Reeves’s 48.2%), stuck to their guns Tuesday. Grandy said Reeves’s attack was part and parcel of a beyond-the-pale campaign approach, while Reeves doubled down on his claims that Grandy is a tool of the local business establishment.

Grandy alluded to several additional issues on which Reeves has claimed either mismanagement or favoritism during Grandy’s tenure. They include claims about unpaid county bills and the audit, the amount of debt the county has, and facts surrounding new school construction and how the Jonesborough school is being funded.

“I’ve met with attorneys this afternoon and we’re going to see how far we can go to actually pursue that,” Grandy said of his statement’s reference about a possible libel suit. In that same statement Grandy said “my radical leftwing opponent is making this up to deceive evangelical Christians into voting for him. He should be ashamed of himself.”

For his part, Reeves said Grandy has a “habit” of taking donations and later “approving” requests or projects related to those donors.

“He was on the health board and he took the donations from a company that he approved a methadone clinic in Gray,” Reeves said. He also said even if the mayor has no official role or authority in an issue, such as beer board decisions, he can and should weigh in on some matters.

“As the mayor of the county you have full responsibility for the morality of the county and if you oppose something you speak up as the mayor,” Reeves said. “If I knew this was happening under my watch and I know that I oppose it I would have said that I oppose it and I would have been at the beer board opposing it.”

Reeves did acknowledge that he’ll be changing the ads related to the fair to say “do Joe and his donors” support beer at the fair. Asked if he would accept donations from Andrew and Callahan, Tennessee Hills’ owners, Reeves said this:

“I’d have to question why. Why are you coming to me? And maybe it was asked, maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes you take money because you need money for a campaign. I mean he takes money from Ballad, he takes money from Mitch Cox Enterprises, and it is what it is. Power and greed are at the top of the Republican party in this county.”

Grandy said Reeves’s campaign is focused almost solely on making what he said are unfair attacks on him.

“These half truths equal a whole lie, and you know, I’ve just been inundated with this stuff,” Grandy said. “My opponent has no plan, no platform and no vision – merely attacks on an existing public official who has worked hard every single day for four years to serve the citizens of Washington County.

“And it’s just very disappointing that somebody who really knows nothing about county business, has never served on a board, has never served on a commission, has tried to be elected for a bunch of offices just makes random statements that really don’t have very much truth at all and applies them to the existing administration. It’s just not right.”