Purchase limits are on tap for new Kotzebue liquor store (6/20/10)

Kyle Hopkins

Coming soon to Kotzebue: The first liquor store in a generation.

In a recent survey conducted by the city, residents in the Western Alaska hub of 3,200 said they'd like to shop for everything from pigs feet to microbrews at the store. The next step is one of specifics and strikes at the delicate chore of regulating alcohol sales in rural Alaska: How much will each person be able to buy?

A proposal before the City Council tonight sets the limit at a bottle of hard liquor per day or a keg of beer per month for each eligible resident.

"My hope is that it's controlled in a way that we will either slow or stop bootlegging," said Willie Goodwin, member of a new city liquor board that's calling for the daily and monthly shopping limits in an effort to thwart black market sales to surrounding villages.

Kotzebue banned liquor sales for more than 20 years until voters loosened rules last October. The vote freed the city to open a liquor store and distribution center where people would pick up alcohol they have shipped to town.

It was pitched as way to better control the amount of liquor arriving in Kotzebue by funneling all shipments and sales through a single building.

Now after months of planning, board members say the business could open as early as July next door to the jail. It's expected to fortify city coffers with sales taxes, fees and fines.

City manager Rick Hohnbaum estimates the business will generate about $900,000 in revenue in the coming year, but soak up nearly as much in start-up expenses such as hiring a manager and buying alcohol to sell.

Over time, the liquor store and distribution center could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the city's general fund, which would pay for police, road maintenance and other services, said city attorney Joe Evans.

Goodwin, chairman of the community elders council and a former Kotzebue mayor, voted against a city-owned liquor store. At the time he warned that young voters didn't know what Kotzebue was like before the ban -- a time of alcohol-fueled deaths in the region.

Now that he's a member of the volunteer liquor board, Goodwin said, "I'm trying to make the best of what the voters decided and what's going to happen, because that's what the people of Kotzebue wanted."

The daily liquor sale limits proposed by the board are meant to prevent bootleggers from buying their monthly allowance all at once and selling the liquor to people from villages that forbid alcohol, he said.

"I didn't want Kotzebue to be the liquor store for the region," Goodwin said.

One problem with the old system, said alcohol board chairman Cole Schaeffer, is that bootleggers could have someone pick up alcohol in Anchorage and ship it to Kotzebue -- bypassing monthly importation limits and leaving regulators with no control over how much liquor arrived in the region.

Under the rules before the City Council tonight, Kotzebue residents would have to buy a $50 permit to shop at the liquor store or use the distribution site. Anyone banned from using alcohol while on parole or probation would temporarily lose their permit.

Even with the changes, Kotzebue remains a "damp" community, meaning no private businesses can apply for liquor licenses.

The tactic is an unusual approach to perennial problems of underage drinking and illegal sales in Alaska communities. In Kotzebue, where the police chief has estimated nine in 10 crimes are alcohol-related, the city could become the only community in Alaska with both a city-run liquor store and distribution site, according to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

The Inupiat village of Kiana, east of Kotzebue on the Kobuk River, voted for the same approach in October but only recently assembled a liquor board, which is meeting for the first time today, the city administrator said.

One of the trickiest questions for Kotzebue community leaders remains unanswered: Will villagers and visitors be allowed to buy alcohol in Kotzebue too?

For now, only Kotzebue residents will be able to get permits to use the distribution center or liquor store, Evans said.

In an unscientific survey distributed by the city earlier this year, a majority of Kotzebue residents responded that you shouldn't have to live in the city to be able to shop at the liquor store.

Handed out at City Hall and posted on the city website, the survey asked people what they'd like to be able to buy at the new store. "Self-help books," "Miller Lite," "Alaskan Amber," residents replied.

And what general advice did the people of Kotzebue have for the new liquor board, the survey asked?

Visitors from villages should be able to drink in Kotzebue but shouldn't be able to take alcohol home with them, someone wrote.

"Just be kind to all customers and mind your own business," said another.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

Alcohol limits

Daily and monthly alcohol limits proposed for Kotzebue residents:

Daily

• 750 ml (“fifth”) of hard liquor.

• 30 12-ounce cans of beer.

• 3 liters, or four 750 ml bottles, of wine.

Monthly

• 10.5 liters, or 14 “fifths,” of hard liquor.

• 16 gallons of beer, enough to get a single, full-size keg.

• 24 liters, or 32 bottles, of wine.

Note: The limits proposed by the city’s alcohol control board are cumulative — meaning that if you bought a keg of beer at the city-owned liquor store, you couldn’t order any additional beer from Anchorage for the rest of the month.

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By KYLE HOPKINS
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