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Rural Alaska

AC liquor store in Bethel shuts down after alcohol board refuses to renew license

An Alaska Commercial Co. worker stocks the shelves of the AC liquor store in Bethel on opening day, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN)

The only year-round liquor store in Bethel shut down Tuesday night, hours after state alcohol regulators sided with a protest from the Southwest Alaska city and refused to renew the liquor license for the operator, Alaska Commercial.

Critics have targeted the AC Quickstop, the first liquor store in Southwest Alaska's largest city in more than 40 years, since it opened two years ago. They say it has contributed to a spike in crime and violence in Bethel and nearby dry communities, attracting villagers and promoting bootlegging in the region.

AC managers have said the liquor store has taken unusual steps to address the public outcry, reducing hours, limiting sales amounts and closing on Sundays. The store brought about $1 million annually to the city in tax revenues, indicating that annual gross sales exceeded $6 million.

About 6,000 people live in Bethel, which serves as a retail and travel hub for dozens of Western Alaska villages.

The complaints against the store were bolstered Tuesday night at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board meeting in the community, where city officials cited data  showing a rise in death investigations and police calls since the store opened.

The city council in February passed a resolution that "implored" the control board to reject the store's two-year liquor license at its location in a densely populated neighborhood near a school.

State law places great weight on such requests from local governments, an ABC official said. That left the board with little room to maneuver.

The board refused to renew the license, effectively killing the liquor store.

The AC Quickstop in Bethel in 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN file photo)

The board's roughly six-hour meeting included more than 50 public comments against the liquor store, with many opponents citing increased public drunkenness, violence and domestic crime in Bethel and villages, a board member noted toward the meeting's end.

Only a handful of speakers seemed to be torn by the question of keeping the store open, he said.

Erika McConnell, control board director, said the AC store's liquor license is eliminated because Bethel's population shrunk just below 6,000, according to the yearly count released in April.

Going below that threshold reduces the amount of liquor licenses available in the city from three to two, she said.

The count does not include inmates at the correctional center in the city. Currently, Bethel is about 20 residents short of being eligible for a third license, though that could change if the population grows, McConnell said.

Bethel Spirits, owned by Bethel Native Corp., holds one of the licenses. It operates one month out of the year. The city did not protest the license renewal for that store. The control board renewed Bethel Spirits' license Tuesday night in a separate decision.

The second liquor license belongs to Bethel resident Cezary Maczynski, who received it in November. However, Kusko Liquor, the working name for the business, has not opened.

In October, voters in the city will head to the polls to vote on a citizen's initiative to once again ban alcohol sales in the city.

Sharon Williams, tribal administrator for the dry village of Napaskiak near Bethel, said on Wednesday residents in the region feared that year-round liquor sales would allow alcohol to flow more easily across the region. She predicted the problems as far back as 2009, when Bethel first voted to end its prohibition against liquor sales, she said.

"All that stuff happened," said Williams. "But I'm so happy now. Lives will be saved and families will become happy again."

Bethel Police Department figures show that reports to police for intoxicated pedestrians rose dramatically over two years. At the Quickstop, the calls jumped to 147 in 2017, a 188 percent increase from two years earlier. The Quickstop was a convenience store before liquor sales were added in 2016.

Death investigations in the city rose to 24 in 2017, from 11 in 2015, department figures indicate. The data did not indicate which of the deaths were alcohol-related.

Tuesday night, an employee at the AC Quickstop said the store was shutting down indefinitely at 11 p.m., following the board's decision.

"It will be closed until further notice," said Jerry Rutherford, the store manager, adding that he could not provide more information.

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