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Battle brews over alcohol sales at Midtown gas station

Rosemary Shinohara
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Leo von Scheben, founder, past president and CEO of USKH architecture and engineering firm, remembers some ugly incidents in the 1990s involving drunks outside the firm's offices on A Street between Northern Lights Boulevard and Fireweed Lane.

Street people would come up the hill along A Street from the Chester Creek greenbelt -- "Up the chute, I call it" -- to buy liquor from a store near USKH, and get drunk.

"They would use our outdoor areas, our parking lot and our covered parking as a toilet. And harass our people. Ask for money. Harass our clients," Von Scheben told the Anchorage Assembly last week. "I had to hire security to escort our young ladies and women out of USKH. ... It was pretty sad."

When the independent liquor store next to USKH closed in 1999, the troubles stopped, Von Scheben said. "It was amazing."

But now Tesoro Northstore has applied for a liquor store permit in the same vicinity, and some residents and business workers say they're afraid their part of town will deteriorate all over again. They are rallying against the permit.

"There are a lot of angry people," Karen Dechman, a Midtown Community Council officer, told the Assembly. The community council has already passed a resolution against the proposed liquor store.

Another opponent, Mari Wood, asked people in the Assembly chambers to rise if they were against the permit, and many people stood up.

No one spoke in favor of having a liquor store.

TESORO MUM

Tesoro operates a gas station and convenience store at Northern Lights and A Street. The company has asked the Assembly for a land use permit to add the liquor store.

Tesoro has a liquor license from the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board, said city planner Francis McLaughlin, but it's not for any particular location. The ABC Board checks with the municipality before approving transfer of the license to a certain location.

Assembly vice-chairwoman Jennifer Johnston said the Assembly will need to take into account how many liquor stores there are already in the area and how the neighbors feel, among other things, before it approves a liquor store as an appropriate use for the site.

The Assembly heard from a half-dozen people speaking against the permit Tuesday, but postponed action and will hold another public hearing at its Oct. 23 meeting.

The vote was delayed to give Tesoro a chance to meet with the Midtown Community Council on Oct. 10.

Tesoro's local attorney and regional manager did not return phone calls from the Daily News to talk about their proposal, or their reaction to neighborhood concerns.

At corporate headquarters in San Antonio, Tex., Tesoro spokeswoman Megan Arredondo said in an e-mail, "We do not have anything to share at this time."

GOVERNMENT HILL EXPERIENCE

Dechman said opponents of the permit have been told to look at what's happened at a Government Hill Tesoro liquor store, where Tesoro agreed to take certain steps to make buying liquor there less attractive to street alcoholics.

The Government Hill agreement, which is part of the city permit, was struck in 2010 and says among other things that the store will sell:

• No cheap wines, and no fortified wines less than $10 a bottle.

• No six-packs of beer less than $6.00.

• No liquor products less than 750 milliliters (such as airline-sized mini-bottles).

Dechman visited the Government Hill store a few days ago and took photographs that she said showed fortified wine for less than $10, in violation of their agreement, and a case of 30 Genesee beers for $17.99 -- less than 60 cents apiece.

Assemblyman Patrick Flynn said he was surprised to see a photo of wine known as Mad Dog 20/20 among Dechman's collection.

"That's a no-no because it's a fortified wine and the market for it is for people who are looking to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible," Flynn said.

But Bob French, chairman of the Government Hill Community Council, said the community's experience with the Tesoro liquor store on Government Hill has been generally positive.

"We haven't had any complaints there. All the vagrants and drunks in the area have gone down considerably," French said.

For awhile, a second liquor store on Government Hill was selling cheap vodka at a price lower than stores elsewhere in town, and that attracted more drinkers, French said. But the owner of the second store agreed to some of the same conditions as Tesoro did, and the situation improved, French said.

TOO MANY STORES?

Mari Wood, vice president of Arctic Office Products, says the Northern Lights and A Street location is already saturated with alcohol outlets and doesn't need another one.

Walmart and Oaken Keg package stores and six or seven restaurants that sell alcohol are within 1,000 feet of the proposed new one at Northern Lights and A, say city planning documents.

Wood said there are others on Fireweed and in Spenard.

Arctic Office Products is in the huge Quonset-hut shaped building across A Street from USKH.

"It was very tense" when the old liquor store was open in the late 1990s, Wood said. "Every one of the phones in the building had both the police number on it, as well as the Community Service Patrol. We had it on speed dial."

Inebriates would pass out in the restroom. If someone left a car unlocked, they were likely to find a stranger sleeping in it, Wood said.

Lisa Ellison, who also works at Arctic Office, said she doesn't have any problems with Tesoro. "But Arctic Office is a wonderful place to work and I want to keep it that way."

The old liquor store closed in 1999 after the Assembly protested its license.

Later in 1999, Tesoro applied for a city permit to open a liquor store in the same area. More than 700 people signed a petition opposing it, and the Assembly turned Tesoro down.

"We fought the battle and it got denied," Von Scheben said. "As far as I'm concerned nothing has changed."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
Anchorage Daily News