After almost a year of work and controversy, the owner of a Bethel auto body business secured the Southwest Alaska city's third and final liquor store license on Monday.
But in a city where officials say alcohol troubles are visible and worsening, the debate over sales likely won't fade, even as the retail options are set.
Cezary Maczynski, whose waterfront body shop has long operated on Bethel's Front Street, was granted a liquor license by the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board at its meeting Monday. Kusko Liquor is the working name for his business, which will overlook the Kuskokwim River. Maczynski first applied for his license in January.
Bethel now has three approved liquor store licenses, the maximum based on its population of about 6,400 residents.
Alaska Commercial Co. already operates a busy liquor store at its AC Quickstop on Akakeek Street, an area of town that borders subsidized housing. Bethel Native Corp. runs a part-time liquor store in a former Polaris dealership with a tiny inventory of only beer and wine that's open just 30 days a year, the minimum needed to stay licensed. Maczynski, whose shop is across the street from the corporation's Bethel Spirits, was its first customer.
On Monday, the ABC board had before it three liquor store applications for Bethel.
The Bethel City Council had taken a stand against all three but, in a reversal, decided in August to drop its protest of Maczynski's. The state board voted to support the city and rejected the other two applications, one from Alaska Commercial Co. to open a second Bethel store and a proposal from Steve Chung to turn Ed's Automotive into a liquor store.
With those turned down, the board turned its attention to Kusko Liquor, no longer competing against others.
"It's the only license application for Bethel," said ABC board chairman Bob Klein. "Background's complete. All approvals are complete. City of Bethel has lifted its protest. What's the pleasure of the board?"
And the board agreed to grant the license.
Another store won't mute the negative effects of alcohol sales and could worsen the situation, said City Council member Leif Albertson, who also is a volunteer paramedic and has long spoken against alcohol sales.
"For a lot of people the issue isn't WHO gets the license, it's the negative effects of liquor sales," Albertson said in an email.
If and when Kusko Liquor opens, the AC store could respond with lower prices, he said.
"If that happens, woe to Bethel," Albertson said. "A price war on booze means more alcohol being sold and consumed."
Chung didn't speak at the meeting.
But Alaska Commercial Co. fought – and failed — to get the ABC board to overrule the city's position, arguing that it takes its role in the community seriously.
AC opened the Bethel liquor store in May 2016, and with it came the community's first legal alcohol sales in more than 40 years.
The store has state-of-the-art security, Alaska Commercial Co. general manager Walt Pickett told the ABC board. It closes at 8 p.m., though it could stay open until 11 p.m. under city code. The store limits how much alcohol an individual can buy and reports suspicious activity to law enforcement, he said.
For a year and a half, the AC liquor store has operated in Bethel without any violations of its state license, Pickett said.
"Just another example of our commitment, and proof of our commitment, to the social well-being of the community of Bethel," he said.
But city leaders say Alaska Commercial Co. hasn't looked out for Bethel.
Since the store opened, alcohol problems have dramatically worsened in the neighborhood around the AC Quickstop liquor store and at the AC main store down the road, Bethel City Attorney Patty Burley told the ABC Board in defending the council's position to oppose the AC store.
The council wanted AC to be a "responsible steward," she said.
"Because Bethel suffers from alcohol. They didn't show that responsibility. So Bethel said: 'You're not it,'" Burley told the ABC board.
People drink in the parking lot and end up next door at a housing complex run by Bethel Native Corp., officials said. The fire escapes became a hangout for drinkers, Fire Chief Bill Howell said in a memo to the Bethel City Council last week. The Native corporation had to add fencing and security.
By the city's calculation, police calls are up more than 400 percent at both the AC main store and the AC liquor store since the latter opened.
More intoxicated people are hanging out and causing problems at both locations, the police data shows.
Calls to police about intoxicated pedestrians at the AC main store totaled 107 in the 12 months before the liquor store opened. In the 12 months afterwards? 570 calls to police about intoxicated pedestrians, she said.
But citywide, calls for help rose just 4 percent, suggesting that the problems are concentrated around the stores.
Pickett doesn't live in Bethel and doesn't see the impact of the store, Arvin Dull, a longtime Bethel resident and business leader, told the ABC board in advocating for Maczynski.
The auto shop owner originally ran into challenges with the city over issues including whether his location has appropriate parking.
Maczynski must tear down the auto body shop to make room for parking, under the terms of a conditional use permit needed for a liquor store in Bethel.