Bethel Citizens Urge Council to Stop Liquor Stores

A capacity crowd, largely opposed to local liquor sales, spoke for nearly four hours before the council. (Photo by Dean Swope / KYUK)
A capacity crowd, largely opposed to local liquor sales, spoke for nearly four hours before the council. (Photo by Dean Swope / KYUK)

The Bethel City Council heard hours of passionate testimony Tuesday night urging them to protest anticipated applications to sell liquor. Many in the capacity crowd asked the council to consider the consequences of local sales in a region that suffers disproportionate effects from alcohol abuse and related violence.

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More than 40 people spoke for more than 3.5 hours at a public hearing, with many sharing personal stories about how alcohol has destroyed them or their families. All but a small handful urged the council to push back on businesses seeking to sell alcohol.

Eva Malvich, who has worked to organize the Bethel Winter House homeless shelter and has lost family to alcohol, told the council that the community is not prepared.

“If you had a liquor store here, could you imagine the impact it would have on the people here with the services you now offer? It cannot happen. You cannot take care of the problem if it’s going to increase ten-fold,” said Malvich.

A Bethel Native Corporation subsidiary, Bethel Spirits plans to applyfor a package liquor store license for a store inside their Kipuskvik facility which wasrecently vacated by Omni Enterprises’ Swanson’s store. The Alaska Commercial Company also isseeking a license to sell liquor. Ana Hoffman, President and CEO for BNC asked for the council’s support and made an economic case.

“Bethel Spirits’ ability to acquire a liquor license will provide the city with a mechanism to collect sales tax and facilitate control over legal alcohol sales. We all know the current situation in Bethel only perpetuates the rampant presence of illegal alcohol sales and continuing to ignore that reality helps no one,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman said the proposed store would be located in the back of the upstairs area and take up less than one percent of the overall facility. If it advances, the store could be the first Bethel liquor store in four decades. Voters in 2009 removed the local option law that prevented local sales and restricted imports. Citizens the next year in an advisory vote rejected five types of licenses. The city council protested the applications sent to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which then rejected them.The latest push for local sales comes shortly after the Bethel Native Corporation lost Omni Enterprises’ Swanson’s, its tenant in their $20 million new store.

The companies haven’t explained why the store failed in Bethel. Resident Darlene Mojin said that children may have to pay the price for what she believes is poor business planning that led to the liquor store proposal.

“I want you to think about the children who have no say so when their parents are drunk, and they can’t sleep, and they have to go to school and try to learn, but they’re so tired they have to close their eyes and lay on their desks. And there are 11th graders who only read at the second grade level. We need to be accountable and you’re going to be accountable for what you vote on,” said Mojin.

Bethel voters in a 2010 advisory vote rejected five types of licenses. Image courtesy of the City of Bethel.
Bethel voters in a 2010 advisory vote rejected five types of licenses. Image courtesy of the City of Bethel.

Residents from nearby villages said that what happens in Bethel has huge consequences for the dozens of the communities that have banned alcohol but are linked to Bethel as a hub. Bethel resident Bev Hoffman said the problems surrounding alcohol are very real, but proposed that the community work together to try something different.

“We can work together and figure out how we can do this. A liquor store run by strict rules and regulations in my opinion can work. I’d rather see that money stay here. Keep the money we’re spending elsewhere to help combat the alcohol problems here,” said Hoffman.

As no businesses have applied for licenses, the council took no action. They have 60 days to protest, if they choose, following notification of the application. Several people urged the council to sponsor a public vote before deciding on whether to protest the applications. But the process could move too quickly. Mayor Robb said it takes at least 90 days to organize an advisory vote.

Council member Zach Fansler hoped the companies seeking liquor licenses would wait to hear from the community.

“If they wish for something like this to go through, [I believe the best plan] is for them to hold off and wait to submit their application until the time we could have an advisory vote organized for the entire community. That is what I would ask them to do. I know that is not always possible, but it might be best for all parties involved,” said Fansler.

BNC has said that they expect to submit their application in April.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.