Julia O'Malley: A Spenard corner that won't clean up

Julia O'Malley
In & Out Liquor is located between Benson Boulevard and West 29th Place near Spenard Road.
Erik Hill
Martin Kim owns In & Out Liquor on Benson Boulevard at Spenard Road. He cited other liquor outlets nearby as suppliers for inebriates who populate the Benson Boulevard bus stop nearby.
Erik Hill

Spenard has been cleaning up its act for a decade, but at Spenard Road and Benson Boulevard, the bad old days hang on.

Go by any afternoon and you'll see. Hard-drinking homeless people leaning on the bench at the bus stop or snoozing in the weedy brush between parking lots. Somewhere between 12 and 20 regulars -- a subset of the larger population of street people who orbit Midtown -- tend to congregate there, causing various kinds of trouble. The businesses nearby are accustomed to cleaning up vomit and feces outside their buildings. They're used to calling the police about fights or people passed out in the freezing cold. They want someone to do something to clean it up. They are beyond frustrated.

"It's in the heart of Midtown. Everybody drives by and sees it," said Tommy Persons, who owns Tommy's Burger Stop. "I don't know why the mayor lets this go on."

You know this story. This isn't the only Anchorage intersection haunted by street alcoholics in the heart of a neighborhood. Go to Fairview. Or Tudor Road. You can watch the same toxic cycle play out: liquor stores, street people with their bottles, cops, neighboring businesses hosing out their doorways in the morning. And you know how the money flows: The public pays it, the liquor sellers bank it. The human cost is on display for everybody to see, lying there on the sidewalk with the empty flasks of Monarch Vodka or sitting on the corner, holding a cardboard sign.

How does a neighborhood stop it? Spenard has been trying to change this one troubled corner for years, but bureaucracy, politicians and state alcohol policy make it almost impossible.

The issue on the corner of Spenard and Benson, the neighbors say, stems at least in part from a cubbyhole of a liquor store called In & Out Liquor (not to be confused with a second In & Out Liquor at Arctic Boulevard and 36th Avenue).

Spenard's In & Out is very busy. Its inventory caters to those looking for potent and cheap. Neighboring businesses that watch the customers walk In & Out say the store routinely sells to chronic street alcoholics, turning the corner into a popular crash pad.

"Somebody has the quote that In & Out is to street inebriates as sugar water is to hummingbirds," said Jim Bowers, president of the Spenard Community Council. "That's the perception."

I heard about this particular situation from Tom McGrath. He owns Frigid North Company, an electronics supply store on Spenard Road. McGrath has been involved with the Spenard Community Council since the '80s. Last week he took me on a tour of what he calls the homeless "living room," across from In & Out near Blaine's Art shop. What I saw was a field of cheap alcohol bottles, clothes and wads of toilet paper. It was early so the usual crowd wasn't there. There was just one man seated on an upturned bucket against the chain-link, looking toasted. Sometimes there is a whole cluster of furniture, fashioned out of pallets, in the weeds, McGrath said.

"If you picked up all the trash today you could come next week and it would look the same," he said.

Rene Haag, who owns Blaine's, told me later that she is bone tired of cleaning up after the people who occupy the wooded areas near her parking lot and use her Dumpster area as a toilet. She sometimes calls the police a few times a week.

"All they can do is tell them to move on, and then they come back 15 minutes later," she said.

Are these the customers of In & Out? She said she doesn't know for sure, but it's hard not to suspect it.

"If the liquor stores weren't there serving the cheapest booze available on the market, they probably wouldn't hang out there," she said.

Persons, the Burger Stop owner, said he's seen intoxicated people go into In & Out and come out with booze. High school kids tend to buy there too, he said. The homeless alcoholics make messes on his property and get into fights.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "I don't now how many times I've called CSP and APD, weekly, sometimes daily."

Martin Kim owns In & Out. He is 82 years old and speaks mainly Korean. The community council has tried to talk with him, but he hasn't been willing. I went to the store last week and told him the neighbors think he's selling alcohol to chronic street alcoholics, which encourages them to hang around on the corner. His English wasn't perfect, but he understood the question and got his answer across.

"I know who is homeless man," he said. "I never sell."

If he is caught doing that, he said, he could lose his liquor license.

"If the liquor license is cut, I die, OK? No money."

He said I could call later that day and talk to his girlfriend, who spoke better English. I called at the appointed time but the woman who answered said she didn't speak English and hung up on me.

When I looked it up, I found that In & Out is not a model of responsible alcohol sales. Its record is checkered with license violations, including one in March for selling to underage patrons. Last fall APD caught In & Out selling to someone who was too intoxicated to legally drive.

In the store's liquor license file, I found a letter from the law firm of Sherman Ernouf and former Anchorage Assemblyman Dan Coffey. The letter apologized on behalf of In & Out for a recent violation. I left a message for the lawyers, but no one returned my call.

I also called Anchorage Police Sgt. Mark Rein, who oversees a team of police currently working on the problem of chronic inebriates in Midtown. He told me there are a number of places in the neighborhood suspected of selling alcohol to people too intoxicated to buy it. He called In & Out Liquor a "concern."

What can business owners do when a liquor store is a bad neighbor? The system is supposed to work like this:

The community council goes to the Assembly. The council makes a case that the liquor store is breaking the law and hurting the neighborhood. Liquor stores have "conditional use" permits from the city. That means, in response to concerns about a store, the Assembly has the power to limit hours or the types of alcohol being sold.

The Assembly can also protest the state's renewal of a liquor license, but in that process the Assembly's role is to advise the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The board makes the final decisions about whether to renew, restrict or yank a license. The ABC board almost never yanks a license.

Shirley Cote, director of the ABC board, told me the board follows the lead of the Assembly. But Assembly members I talked to said the ABC board has a forgiving attitude toward liquor sellers, which makes it hard for the Assembly to change things.

In the case of In & Out, the Assembly didn't even try.

Even though In & Out has been caught in two license violations in less than a year and the community council wants it shut down, its liquor license wasn't protested by the Assembly. The license has been renewed for two years without any conditions.

"They are on our radar," said Assemblyman Paul Honeman, a former senior Anchorage police officer. "We're giving them fairly intense scrutiny."

The Assembly couldn't put conditions on In & Out, Honeman said, because it discovered the city had somehow lost the conditional use permit document.

Honeman's staff person went to the store and invited Kim to meet with the municipal public safety committee, but Kim didn't show.

If the Assembly protested the license, it would need more evidence to convince the ABC board there is a problem, Honeman said. The board's standard for evidence is very high, he said.

"I know that a lot of folks on the ABC board are from the industry. I would like to think they are responsible enough to think their industry as a whole suffers when they've got a bad operator," Honeman said.

The community council echoed Honeman, saying the ABC board makes it nearly impossible to close down a liquor store in Alaska, even when the store is caught repeatedly breaking the law. The alcohol industry is a powerful lobby, so they don't think the board's reluctance is an accident.

"Basically I guess our feeling has been the ABC board has evolved into a situation where they are actively promoting liquor licenses," Bowers said.

I explained these concerned to Ellen Ganley, vice chair of the ABC board. She disputed the idea that the board goes easy on alcohol sellers.

"If a local government protests the license, we generally go along with local government," she said.

The board will consider In & Out's license at its meeting this month, she said. It sounded like the store had the kind of problems that could be helped by putting some conditions on the license, she said.

"If the community council came to the board, we can do that," she said.

When I mentioned this to McGrath, he said going straight to the ABC board instead of going through the Assembly was unusual, but they would try it. The community council has been trying for 10 years to close In & Out, he said. The process of dealing with the city and state has been deeply convoluted and frustrating.

This week seems to be the first time any politician or agency has offered any real help.

"Everybody stands in a circle or points to the left or points to the right," he said.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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