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City officials plan Kotzebue bar and grill, but not everyone approves

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

Kotzebue city officials and community members  continue to discuss a proposed bar and grill that some maintain makes good financial sense for citizens of the Northwest Alaska town on the Chukchi Sea, others believe more alcohol will bring more problems.

The idea stems from a 2009 vote to loosen liquor laws in Kotzebue and allow the sale of alcohol. The community voted to go forward with several projects including a package store that opened in August 2010 and a bar and grill, said city manager Derek Martin.

Any revenue brought in from a restaurant/bar would go back to the city to help its recreational facilities, he added.

In July of last year, the community voted to approve the loan that is now being used on a new youth center. The design of the youth center is nearly finished and, Martin said, will come up for public bid in the next week or two, with construction slated for this summer.

“We hear the community, we hear their wishes and wants,” Martin said. “Secondary (to the youth center) there is a strong desire for a swimming pool and larger recreational facilities … and that costs money. We’re trying to provide these recreational facilities for the community. At the same time, we’re also trying to provide what the community voted on back in 2009 with a restaurant/bar and grill.”

Martin acknowledged that there are many in the community who don’t want to see more alcohol in Kotzebue.

“There is a large concern about the old days when people would go and get, to quote terms I’ve heard in a recent meeting, trashed, belligerent and intoxicated to the point where they’re making wrong decisions,” Martin said. The city council and the Local Beverage Control Board have made responsible serving and management a high priority, he added.

Preventing intoxicated people from entering and not over-serving patrons are some ways the establishment can be managed responsibly. “I do think personal responsibility is key,” said Kotzebue city council member Maija Lukin in a written response. “Alcoholism is a disease. Rather than blaming the city for opening a restaurant that serves alcohol, we need to focus on the people who need assistance and possibly invest in a good alcohol program once again.”

The city is looking at a few existing locations around town for the new restaurant, including the current police station (the police would move to a new location), acquiring a partially-constructed building in town, or renovating the old bowling alley. Another idea is a new building, Martin said.

If an existing location were used, it would be temporary until a new building is constructed, he noted.

“The community voted for these things (in 2009) and the reason why the city is involved is because (residents) wanted the city to own and operate it,” Martin said. “There are opportunities for the community to speak up, voice their concerns and ask questions.”

For some in Kotzebue, adding another venue for residents to get alcohol will exacerbate a bad situation.

“I live in a place where alcohol is a big problem,” said Kotzebue’s Ed Ward, a former two-time Kotzebue police chief. Ward said he often hears alcohol-fueled arguments in the street late at night and even the occasional gunshot. “I imagine a lot of people just want to live their lives,” he said. “And this is not fun.”

During his tenure as Kotzebue police chief in the 1970s and then again from 1986 to 1991, Ward said most calls and crimes were alcohol related.

And from what he reads and witnesses, little has changed, he said.

“You see people out there drinking in the street or staggering down the road with swollen, puffy faces … these things are obvious to me,” Ward said.

Besides leading the police force in Kotzebue, Ward also worked with the North Slope Borough during his career and was involved in the 1997 local option election to ban the sale of alcohol in Barrow.

Currently, Kotzebue sells alcohol through a city-run package store. Those wanting to buy alcohol must first apply for a permit to do so. A permit costs $50. But, said Ward, he often sees locals who, for one reason or another can’t obtain the permit, waiting down the street while others buy alcohol for them.

“I’ve never seen a situation where they’ve actually been able to control it,” Ward said. “To me, the whole business of getting rid of bootlegging by selling liquor ourselves, well, it has nothing to do with who’s selling it, it has to do with the affect it has on the entire community.”

According to the Alaska State Troopers 2013 Annual Drug Report, “Alaska’s criminal justice professionals recognize that alcohol is the primary substance of abuse in Alaska and contributes to many violent, suicidal and accidental deaths, especially in rural Alaska.”

Of all violent crime cases in Alaska that involved troopers, 59.5 percent involved drugs and/or alcohol, the report stated.

City officials acknowledged that alcohol abuse is a problem everywhere, but they maintain that a well-managed bar and grill will make good, financial sense and allow Kotzebue to afford much-needed facilities.

The city has been struggling financially for years, said Kotzebue mayor Clement Richards Sr.

“The city council never had anything to do with the (2009) vote. That was the community itself, and we’re just reaping the benefits of it,” Richards said.

With funds gained through projects stemming from that vote to loosen alcohol laws -- like the package store -- the city has been able to replace decades-old equipment like loaders and graders, the mayor added.

Funds from the city-run liquor store will also be used to pay off loans taken out to design and build the three-phase youth center project. Other money will be used for youth programs, Richards said. “The money is staying right here in Kotzebue,” Richards said of profits from the package store. “This is all good. This is a healthy thing for the community.”

Richards hopes that more community members will attend the meetings to voice their opinions regarding the bar and grill in the coming weeks and months.

The city’s main focus now is getting the first phase of the youth center open before the snow flies next fall. A restaurant/bar, if built, is at least a year away.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.