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Neighbors, Assembly members increase efforts to shut down controversial Fairview liquor store

For two decades, a liquor store at 12th Avenue and Gambell Street in Anchorage has drawn the ire of some residents and business owners, who say its business practices stoke problems associated with street alcoholics and drug dealers in the neighborhood.

Now, the fight over the Spirits of Alaska liquor store is intensifying.

After protracted discussions between the Fairview Community Council and the store's owner, members of the Anchorage Assembly are moving to protest Spirits of Alaska's liquor license in hopes that the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will not renew it.

If that doesn't work, another option is on the table: Revoking an existing conditional use permit, which would also force the business to close.

On Monday, a small group of Fairview residents staged a protest in the parking lot of Spirits of Alaska, a low-slung, half-unoccupied storefront on busy Gambell Street. It's part of an effort to put pressure on officials to shut down the business.

Ella Demoski said the liquor store contributes to crime that makes her feel unsafe walking in her neighborhood. She wants it gone.

Bridget Thompson, the owner of Spirits of Alaska, says her business is being unfairly blamed for the neighborhood's complicated problems.

"While I sympathize with the residents of Fairview, I don't think the elimination of one liquor store is going to solve chronic inebriation and drug dealing," she said.

A long battle

The Assembly protest, which is set to be introduced Tuesday night and is sponsored by members Paul Honeman, Patrick Flynn and chair Dick Traini, is the latest development in a battle over Spirits of Alaska that has been running for 20 years.

When Thompson bought the business, once called Bottle Barn, in 1995, she believed she could expand the liquor shop with a coffee bar, antiques and refinished furniture, she said.

Thompson is the sole owner of Spirits of Alaska, she said, but her husband, Anchorage attorney Darryl Thompson, acts as her lawyer for business matters.

The neighborhood association at the time fought her plan to move the business a few blocks to a more visible spot at 12th and Gambell, where it now stands. They claimed "Thompson caters to hard-core drunks who trash the neighborhood," an Anchorage Daily News report from the time said.

Thompson won out but had to agree to a set of conditions, including not selling items like extra-strong Everclear grain alcohol or some bottom-shelf liquors, in an effort to deter street alcoholics. She also agreed to do things like spend 20 hours on the premises every week and keep two employees on duty whenever alcohol is being sold.

Thompson says she's tried her best to abide by the rules for the past 20 years, though the business was cited by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board three times between 2009 and 2012 for employee infractions including selling to inebriated people and selling to minors.

Her dreams of an upscale liquor store with lattes never panned out.

On Monday, the store opened at 11 a.m. sharp. Inside, it is cheery but sparsely stocked. Refrigerators are mostly empty.

At 11:15 a.m., a customer walked in and asked the clerk for the cheapest bottle of vodka for sale. He got Monarch Vodka for $12.50.

Thompson, who has a full-time job beyond owning Spirits of Alaska, says she sees her customers as coming from a broader set of circumstances: "Some people from the neighborhood. Some tourists, since we're close to downtown."

But even she agrees problems in the neighborhood have worsened. She says that when she calls police "people don't even scatter anymore."

In recent years, Fairview residents and business owners have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as a sphere of lawless activity, with the nucleus at Spirits of Alaska.

Patrick Krochina owns an office building a block from the liquor store. He says a constant scrum of drunken people and resulting trash have exhausted and driven away his tenants. Several floors of his building are empty and he is on the verge of foreclosure.

Fourteen months ago, things came to a head when residents came to the Fairview Community Council with graphic complaints about drunkenness, public defecation, public masturbation, violence, prostitution and drug use on the streets and alleyways that surround Spirits of Alaska and the Carrs Oaken Keg liquor store, two blocks away.

"People were just fed up," Krochina said.

After that, the Fairview Community Council sat down with Thompson and the operators of the Oaken Keg to discuss possible solutions, said Lt. Garry Gilliam, the head of the Anchorage Police Department's Community Action Policing team.

Oaken Keg complied with what the community council asked of it, Gilliam said. Oaken Keg agreed to improvements including more security guards, tighter attention to an "enforcement list" of people not welcome to buy alcohol, and practices such as putting two employees on duty in the store and sending one out for outside checks to prevent "straw buys," said Krochina.

They were less satisfied with Thompson's efforts.

Thompson said she took steps and spent money to comply with the council's requests.

"They asked us to upgrade our security camera system. We did that. They asked me to work with (APD officer Sally Jones) to come up with ideas for better lighting, so we did that," she said.

At the same time, starting in October 2013, Anchorage police were gathering surveillance footage of Spirits of Alaska to document the kind of behavior residents were complaining about.

They edited the footage into a kind of supercut that shows, condensed, what Gilliam says is the problem: "Apparent drug deals. Assaults. Straw purchases -- where individuals buy alcohol and sell it to drunk individuals. An allegation that one clerk is working in conjunction with a known drug dealer … People have difficulty getting up. People standing on corner drinking. Female employee leaving with a known drug dealer. Guy smoking crack. Public defecation on south side of building …" he said.

Gilliam says it is clear to him that Spirits of Alaska is selling largely to street alcoholics.

"It's clear this business caters to that clientele," he said.

The video has been shown to the Assembly members moving to contest the liquor license.

"We never wanted to be the thorn ..."

Ultimately, the Fairview Community Council asked that the Assembly pursue revocation of the store's conditional use permit, Flynn said.

Flynn contends that the Assembly is taking an unorthodox approach to Spirits of Alaska because the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which polices liquor licenses, isn't doing its job.

"The only tool the Assembly has is to revoke the conditional use permit," he said. "If the regulators who were responsible for this would do their jobs, we wouldn't be. This is not our job."

After the resolution is introduced Tuesday, a public hearing will be held March 24.

For her part, Bridget Thompson says she would love to sell her store and get out of Fairview. She's been trying to sell it through word-of-mouth for years but hasn't had any takers.

"Every time the community council pickets in front of it or attaches more conditions to it, it makes it very difficult to sell," she said.

Her idea: Let the community council buy it and run it as a nonprofit. Proceeds could go to helping the neighborhood.

Thompson says she is troubled by the furor over her liquor store. If she gets shut down, "it's bankruptcy for me," she said. She wishes things had turned out differently.

"We never wanted to be the thorn in the community's side," she said.

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