BETHEL – The first legal liquor sales in more than 40 years are coming to Bethel.
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in two separate votes on Thursday gave its permission for both the AC Quickstop liquor store and a Bethel Native Corp. store first proposed back in April.
It will be months before either store opens. It wasn’t clear Thursday whether Bethel Native Corp. even intends to move forward on its Bethel Spirits store now that the long-sought license is approved. The village corporation also has been approached about leasing its Kipusvik retail space to the Lower Kuskokwim School District for a Yup’ik immersion school that burned in a Nov. 3 fire. A school in the space would prevent a liquor store there.
That aside, at least one and maybe two liquor stores are coming to a community that has been flooded with alcohol since going wet in 2009 but with no legal outlet to buy a six-pack, or a bottle of wine or spirits. Residents then didn’t support legal sales, a series of advisory votes in 2010 showed, but some people wanted to be able to fly in unlimited amounts of alcohol with only the largest orders tracked by authorities.
For the past six years, the unique status – wet, no legal sales and lots of booze – has led to serious bootlegging in Bethel – a reason to support a regulated liquor store, Ana Hoffman, president and chief executive of Bethel Native Corp., has said..
“We’ve got the go-ahead, so now the work begins,” Alaska Commercial Co. vice president and general manager Walt Pickett said Thursday afternoon after the ABC Board meeting.
The North West Co. owns and runs Alaska Commercial Co. stores in rural Alaska including the main grocery store and the combined Quickstop convenience store, laundry and storage space in Bethel.
It will take two to four months or longer to remodel what are now about a dozen AC storage units into a liquor store of 2,500 square feet, Pickett said. The renters of the storage spaces, which are just wooden and chicken-wire units, will get notices to move their belongings, he said. The liquor store will have a separate entrance and signs will warn that minors aren’t allowed without a parent or legal guardian, he said.
The store hours haven’t yet been determined nor the name though it might simply be AC liquor store, as most of its other liquor stores are called, Pickett said. About 10 to 12 people will be hired, including clerks and security staff. The store will have cameras inside and out, he said.
Hoffman didn’t respond Thursday to requests for information on the direction for Kipusvik or the timeline for Bethel Spirits if the Native corporation goes that way. Discussions about using the space for a school are continuing, according to Dan Walker, the school district superintendent.
Council drops protests
The Bethel City Council had protested both liquor license applications. Then last week – after the October election of new council members and a city advisory vote supporting liquor sales – the council decided 4-3 to drop both protests, although not all members voted the same way on each application.
The ABC Board, at a day-long meeting in Anchorage on alcohol license issues from around the state, debated technical concerns brought by its staff about the Bethel store applications. Was the AC Quickstop within a public housing complex? Was Bethel Spirits too close to a school? In the end, the board decided to approve both licenses, determining that sometimes murky laws didn’t prohibit either one.
The Quickstop is within the city subdivision boundary of Bethel Heights, known by locals as “Housing.” The development includes 117 single family homes owned or financed by Alaska Housing Finance Corp., said Cynthia Franklin, director of the ABC Board.
A 2013 law limits alcohol sales “in a multi-unit residential housing development owned or financed” by AHFC to sales at a restaurant with an alcohol license, Franklin said. AHFC must approve the arrangement as well, under state law.
Franklin and assistant attorney general Harriet Milks said their reading of the relatively new statute is that it would prohibit a liquor store within the subdivision boundaries. Franklin advised the application be denied.
But AC’s Pickett told the ABC Board the store was “not on the premises” of AHFC, nor was it surrounded by AHFC housing. On one side there’s a Bethel Native Corp. apartment complex. Behind it is a swamp. Bethel Heights borders it on the other side and across the street.
Marvin Yoder, a board member representing the public from Palmer, questioned whether single family housing development was intended to be covered by the law.
“You are the board,” Franklin said. “You are free to accept or reject your attorney’s legal advice.”
Liquor store applications
Bethel Mayor Rick Robb, who along with several city leaders was in Anchorage for the Alaska Municipal League annual conference, told the ABC Board that council members had been concerned about a liquor store in a residential neighborhood. The protest, before it was dropped, mentioned “Housing Subdivision” and noted that 30 percent of recent calls for help there were alcohol-related.
“This rather obscure statute, I heard about yesterday,” he said. The council did not consider it.
Yet around Bethel, businesses sit in or at the edge of neighborhoods, Pickett said. If problems arise at the liquor store, AC will deal with them, he said. After customers complained about vagrants hanging around the AC grocery store, the company hired security staff there, he said.
Board members split 4-1. ABC Board Chairman Bob Klein and members Yoder, Robert Evans and Thomas Manning voted to approve the AC Quickstop license. Member Ellen Ganley voted against the application.
Later in the afternoon, the ABC Board unanimously approved the Bethel Native Corp.’s application for Bethel Spirits liquor store in Kipusvik, across Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway from the Bethel Youth Facility detention center, which includes a school. BNC has been looking for a new tenant since March when Swanson’s grocery and department store abruptly closed.
Bethel city code prohibits a liquor store within 300 feet of a school, measured from the store’s main parking lot entrance to the nearest portion of school grounds.
Franklin told the board she sent an ABC investigator to Bethel with copies of city and state code to determine if Bethel Spirits was too close. The answer depended on which entrance to Kipusvik was used, the investigator found. What he considered the main entrance was just over 145 feet from the edge of the detention center grounds.
But Hoffman told the board he measured incorrectly. Robb said the council never settled the question of whether Bethel Spirits was too close because members couldn’t agree on whether the detention center is a school. The school district says it is.
In the end, Hoffman said BNC could put up signs designating the main entrance as the one farthest from the youth center. Board members approved the license application as long as the main entrance complies with city code on alcohol sales.
“I think that Bethel is moving in a new direction,” City Council member Leif Albertson, who has been against sales, told the ABC Board. “We should move in that direction in the right way.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Study from Arctic Canada finds cannabis users less obese, less at risk for diabetes, Alaska Dispatch News
Finland: Finns divided over alcohol regulation, Yle News
Norway: Nordic diet a heart-smart alternative, Radio Sweden
United States: Alaska city awash in alcohol even without legal sales, Alaska Dispatch News