BETHEL – Less than a year after the start of Bethel's first legal alcohol sales in decades, people in the Southwest Alaska hub and surrounding villages say the result has been dire.
More sexual assaults. More dysfunction in homes. Young people showing up drunk to school sporting events. People drinking and dying.
Now the Bethel City Council has come out against proposals for two more liquor stores. One would be in the building that now houses Fili's Pizza, Bethel's only restaurant with beer and wine sales. The other would be on property that is now an auto body shop.
The council voted Tuesday night 5-1 to protest both applications to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Only Mayor Rick Robb was in favor of the new stores. Council member Byron Maczynski, whose father, auto body shop owner Cezary Maczynski, is requesting one of the liquor licenses, was absent. Byron had declared a conflict of interest at an earlier meeting.
Opposition to the liquor stores came from a lineup of residents, the head of the Tundra Women's Coalition, Bethel's tribe, as well as two villages on the tundra near Bethel.
"We as a village are having problems ever since your liquor stores have opened, way back," Kasigluk's tribal courts said in a letter to Bethel City Council. "Do something about it before more death comes from that liquor store being opened!!!!!!!!!!!"
Wassilie Pleasant, president of the Nunapitchuk tribal council, said he was prompted to write after seeing Native people park their snowmachines at the liquor store. Stores shouldn't be allowed to sell to residents of dry villages, and votes on Bethel alcohol should extend to communities within 75 miles of the city, he said.
Bethel Search and Rescue says it is seeing more people in dangerous situations since the liquor store opened.
"To everyone in general: Please do not drink while traveling," the organization said in an open letter sent out late last year.
It asked rescuers in other communities to take the lead when intoxicated travelers are in trouble near them.
"BSAR is getting tired and we need your help," the Dec. 29 letter said.
Deaths in the cold
Not long after that, the group helped recover the body of a 29-year-old man on Steamboat Slough near Bethel. Charles Williams Jr. had been headed to the village of Akiak on his four-wheeler. He had been drinking, Bethel police said.
Others died this winter after drinking too much, police said.
Tribes in the region are gathering in Bethel next week. The first item on the agenda? Liquor stores in Bethel.
Both Bethel Police Chief Andre Achee and Fire Chief Bill Howell say the impact of liquor sales is unclear so far.
Medics are responding to more calls of intoxicated people, but the trend was heading that way even before the liquor store opened, Fire Department statistics showed.
Still, in seven months in 2016 when a liquor store was operating, calls for medics to pick up drunken people were up 22 percent over the same period in 2015. Overall for 2016, medics responded to 714 alcohol calls, the most in recent years.
Many troubles can't be linked directly to the liquor store but numbers are going up in many areas. Sexual assaults have spiked, said Eileen Arnold, executive director of the Tundra Women's Coalition.
A popular pizza spot
The city doesn't have the power to approve or reject a liquor license. Its protests will go to the ABC Board, which city officials said is scheduled to consider the Bethel applications next month.
Fili's Pizza, which began selling beer and wine in April 2016, is a popular spot on a busy corner across the street from Tundra Center halfway house and near the Bethel 4-H teen center, playgrounds and Pinky's Park, the biggest park in Bethel. Across another street is the city's Ridgecrest Cemetery. Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, says a liquor store so near what it calls "sacred grounds" would be disrespectful.
Council member Leif Albertson has fought liquor sales all along and sponsored the protest against what is being called Bethel Liquor Store, proposed by Fili's owner Mefail Saliu.
"Whether or not there is going to be liquor sales, this is not a good location," Albertson said.
Bethel's only operating liquor store, owned by Alaska Commercial Co. and in operation since May 2016, is on the other side of Pinky's Park. Research shows a relationship between areas with a density of liquor stores and social and health problems, said Albertson, who submitted summaries of various studies with his resolution.
A second liquor store, owned by Bethel Native Corp., opened briefly in a shuttered marina store but closed after 30 days for reasons that haven't been explained. The auto shop is across from that shuttered store.
Residents testified they see customers line up every morning before the AC liquor store opens. Sometimes they pass out right in the parking lot.
Some residents said they might not be able to use the playground and park anymore if a second store opened.
Saliu didn't address the protest nor did his listed manager, Kadri Limani, a Bethel police sergeant who had previously presented the case for Fili's to sell beer and wine.
The other proposal, for Kusko Liquor Store, would see Cezary's Auto Body & Paint on Bethel's riverfront turn into Kusko Liquor Store.
Council member Alisha Welch, who led the protest against Kusko Liquor Store, said there were a couple of issues. One question was whether Maczynski had enough land for parking, or had proper approval to use the land.
Both Maczynski, calling in from a planned vacation in Florida, and his representative and friend, Arvin Dull, said he an agreement with the Kuskokwim 300 to use its land for parking. But city officials said they still had questions about the land. Maczynski hadn't yet established "site control," officials said.
"I disagree that the Kusko 300 has any right to lease that property because it belongs to us," said city manager Pete Williams.
Another issue is that Maczynski doesn't yet have a conditional use permit, Welch said. His application was incomplete, in part because he didn't have state fire marshal approval, said city attorney Patty Burley.
Maczynski, who was clearly frustrated, said a fire safety review cost $1,900 and he didn't want to spend the money until he had city approval to go forward. But he had submitted plans drawn up by a builder to the fire marshal, Dull said later.
If Maczynski receives a city permit, which is separate from the required state license, the city could withdraw its protest, Albertson said.
Earl Samuelson, a retired trooper pilot who lives downriver from Bethel in Napaskiak, asked whether the tax money from alcohol sales is worth it.
"Are we really benefiting our community?" he asked.
Bethel's 12 percent alcohol tax generated more than $50,000 a month for the first three months, on average, Albertson said.
Efforts to get updated figures weren't successful on Wednesday.