In Bethel, An Alcohol Showdown "Like No Other"

May 24, 2018

Ruth Evon and other Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta elders speak at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board meeting in the Bethel Cultural Center on May 22, 2018.
Credit Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

You can’t buy alcohol from a store in Bethel today, and it’s not clear when you might be able to again.

On Tuesday evening, the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board decided against renewing AC Quickstop’s liquor license, effectively shutting down Bethel’s only operating liquor store.

The decision was greeted by a brief, stunned silence, then a round of applause. It was the first meeting the ABC Board has ever held in Bethel, and several board members said that they’d never seen one like it. About 150 people crowded into Bethel’s Cultural Center on Tuesday, including most of the Y-K Delta’s political leadership. Residents from throughout the region called in to the meeting remotely. The ABC Board reached its decision after listening to almost five hours of tense and tearful public comments, and the overall message was clear: alcohol is devastating the area's communities, and the AC Quickstop liquor store is making it worse.

"Children are afraid to go into the store," said Bethel City Attorney Patty Burley. "I’m afraid to go into the store. I don’t like going in there on my own. My husband’s out of town; I had to stock up on groceries."

In denying AC Quickstop its liquor license, the ABC Board upheld the protest against it. When AC Quickstop opened in 2016, it was Bethel’s first liquor store in almost 40 years and Burley says that the city has been overwhelmed by its impact.

"Deaths have gone up 83 percent," she said. "Intoxicated pedestrians have more than doubled. Call volume has gone up by 7,000. We’re not putting the blame on AC; they’re a business. We’re holding them responsible for their store."

Bethel's police department and EMTs have experienced an overwhelming increase in calls. Earlier in the meeting, Tundra Women’s Coalition Director Eileen Arnold, who runs one of the Y-K Delta’s few women’s shelters, said that her program has seen a 20 percent increase in reported sexual assaults since the liquor store opened.

AC Quickstop is located in a densely populated neighborhood not far from Bethel’s public schools, and Burley argued that the Alaska Commercial company, which owns AC Quickstop, had both picked a dangerous location and done little to ensure the community’s safety.

Dozens of speakers echoed Burley’s concerns, including Danielle Craven, a teacher who was born and raised in Bethel. She is one of the many Bethel residents who voted to legalize alcohol sales back in 2015. "Over the last two years, seeing the devastation of our people, it’s made me, I didn’t fathom that when I cast that vote," Craven said, her voice breaking. "The location of the AC liquor store is horrible. It’s in what’s already the poorest part of our community."

Not everyone agreed. Former city councilwoman Nikki Hoffman also voted to legalize sales in 2015, and she spoke in favor of renewing Bethel liquor licenses, along with a handful of other residents. Alcohol will be a problem in the Y-K Delta no matter what, she argued, so Bethel might as well regulate it, capturing revenues from alcohol sales while edging out bootleggers.

"I truly believe that a lot of people support the sales of alcohol, but a lot of people are not up here because of maybe who their friends are," said Hoffman. Bethel voters weighed in on alcohol in 2009 and 2015; both times they opted for more permissive regulation. 

The Alaska Commercial Company defended its store to the ABC Board. Attorney Katie Davies claimed that the company had gone above and beyond to cooperate with Bethel by voluntarily restricting its business, and that AC had hired plainclothes security to patrol the area. Several Bethel community members disputed just how effective, or even present, that security actually was. Davies also said that AC agrees that the store’s current location isn’t ideal and suggested seeking a new site.

But Alaska’s ABC Board is compelled to agree with municipalities when they oppose a local liquor license renewal, provided that the opposition is not “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.” The Board found that Bethel had good reason to object to the liquor store and proceeded to support the city’s protest. Alaska Commercial General Manager Walter Pickett says that he company will await official notification by the Board before deciding its next step.

While the ABC Board’s main goal was to come to a decision on liquor-licensing issues, the meeting quickly became a forum for a heart-wrenching, wider discussion of alcohol’s impact in Y-K Delta communities. Dozens of elders, political leaders, and other residents told the ABC Board about the many loved ones they had lost to alcoholism. They said that AC Quickstop’s liquor store had caused an increase in alcohol-related deaths, crimes, and medical emergencies in the region’s villages. Many of those villages don’t have the resources to manage it.

Kwethluk Village Public Safety Officer Joseph Nicholai says that his workload has more than tripled since the liquor store opened. "We had 12 gun calls in one night," he said. Nicholai added that it took Alaska State Troopers four days to respond to Kwethluk's call for assistance.

Many speakers urged Bethel to go dry, but this isn’t the end of legal alcohol sales here. While the ABC Board denied AC Quickstop’s liquor license renewal, it approved that of the Bethel Native Corporation’s Bethel Spirits, a store that the corporation has chosen to open only 30 days each year. The City Council did not protest that renewal.

BNC plans to transfer its liquor license to Caribou Traders Liquor, which is owned by the Sea Lion Corporation, a native corporation based in the dry village of Hooper Bay. The Board opted to postpone its decision on the transfer until after Bethel’s October elections, where voters will decide whether they still want legal alcohol sales in their town at all.

Bethel’s third allotted package store liquor license was awarded to longtime Bethel resident Cezary Maczynski last fall, and it was not up for renewal yesterday. His proposed liquor store, Kusko Liquor, also hasn’t opened yet. To complicate matters further, the ABC Board casually told Mayor Rick Robb that Bethel should actually be zoned for two package store liquor licenses, not the three currently allotted to them.

The ABC Board’s decision went into effect almost immediately, and many Bethel residents spent the store’s remaining hours stocking up on supplies. At 10 p.m. Tuesday night, the line at Bethel’s liquor store was out the door. At 11 p.m., the store had closed for good.