The City of Utqiaġvik might consider allowing the sale of alcohol on city property — a decision that could bring profits to the city, and also raise questions about public health and safety.
Right now, it is illegal to sell alcohol in the city but residents can possess and transport alcohol for personal consumption, making Utqiaġvik a “damp” community.
Resident Batish Amirr and other sponsors put together a petition to allow the city to sell alcohol on premises operated by the municipality, Utqiaġvik mayor Asisaun Toovak said during a city council meeting in late December.
The petition calls for the city to move from local option 1 to local option 3 of the Title 4 law, which regulates the sale and dispensing of alcohol throughout the state. Such a move would allow the city to have a municipally run alcohol establishment, such as a package store, a restaurant that sells beer and wine or a full bar, said Gabriel Gonzales, local government specialist at the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.
One of the reasons to switch the rules around alcohol sales is to bring profit to the local municipality, Toovak said.
“Right now a permit holder is spending their money in Anchorage or Fairbanks to ship alcohol to Utqiaġvik,” Toovak said in an email. “If the City of Utqiaġvik gets a package store ... the profits are circulated in Utqiaġvik.”
Profits from alcohol sales can fund recreation facilities and events in town, Toovak said. Opening a new substance use treatment facility would be another way to appropriate the funds, she said.
Having a package store can also help residents save time and money.
Currently, to import alcohol to Utqiaġvik, residents use a distribution center. To get an alcohol permit, residents have to pass a background check, prove that they’ve lived in town for at least a month, pay $200 annually (or $150 for permit renewal) and order alcohol through an alcohol distributor — like Brown Jug or Gold Star — that is willing to ship to Utqiaġvik.
Right now, residents pay the distributor store taxes and shipping fees, and after their order arrives at the distribution center, they also pay a 3% tax and fees to the city. Having a city-owned liquor store would help them avoid paying double taxes and charges, Toovak said.
An alcohol permit now allows residents to order up to 11.25 gallons of beer, 20 liters of wine and 4.5 liters of distilled spirits a month.
“Most order the max once a month,” Toovak said.
Councilwoman Justina Wilhelm said during the December meeting the city should look into how the change around sales could contribute to more controlled levels of consumption among residents.
“Right now, people (in Utqiaġvik) receive a large amount of alcohol at once and people tend to consume quicker,” she said. “If we were to change our options to have a liquor store that we can control how much liquor is sold ... I’m guessing there may be a chance to eliminate binge drinking.”
Overall, there is an opinion that loosening alcohol restrictions can help reduce issues related to bootleg alcohol and homebrew.
In 2017, University of Alaska anthropology professor Kristen Ogilvie looked into the consequences of alcohol restrictions in several Northwest Alaska communities. The federally funded study showed that while the local restrictions in alcohol were meant to empower communities, they in fact led residents to “seek intoxication from both legal and illegal sources of alcohol.”
“Despite various restrictions on the sale, importation, and possession of alcohol through ‘local option’ ordinances in their region, alcohol is still an active substance of misuse in all the communities,” the study said.
Other communities going damp — and back to dry
Around 10 Alaska communities — including Emmonak and Kotzebue — already follow local option 3, which allows for municipality-owned liquor stores, according to the Alaska Beverage Control Board.
The Kotzebue-owned store, Arctic Spirits, has daily limits on alcohol purchases. Since the store opened in 2010, it has been generating revenue for the community.
“They have done a lot since they opened their package store, including new playgrounds, heavy equipment, and even a whole harbor!” Toovak said.
In 2023, $800,000 from the store’s profits was allocated to citywide projects, according to the city. Each year, the city dedicates tens of thousands of dollars from store profits toward Kotzebue Middle and High School, youth internships and community events. In 2022, the city used the funds to buy, among other things, a garbage truck and two excavators, $450,000 each. Over time, they also spent $3 million of the store profits on the Swan Lake Boat Harbor and half a million dollars on a softball field.
Kiana until recently was another Alaska village that followed local option 3 — and had a city-owned package store. This past fall, residents voted to switch to option 1 and ban all alcohol sales. The change went into effect the first week of January.
“Today, Jan. 4, is the last day,” Kiana City Administrator Ely Cyrus said.
The store provided jobs for four people, helped subsidize the cost of fuel and provided additional funding for the village police, Cyrus said.
“The main issue I see with closing the store is the loss of revenue,” he said.
In Emmonak, the city loosened alcohol restrictions and switched from being dry to local option 3 back in 2016. Shortly after that, the community saw a spike in the number of intoxicated people in the streets and violence in homes, according to Emmonak City Clerk Shannon Andrew.
“In the past, you know, there were some accidents and some family losses,” he said. “Here and there, we are (still) hearing of those incidents. I’m glad we do have state troopers and our own village police officer.”
While Emmonak is allowed to have a municipally run package store, the city doesn’t have such a facility yet, and residents use the option to import and order alcohol to the village, Andrew said.
“Especially in the holiday times, it gets kind of pretty hectic,” he said. “We’re still in the process of getting this figured out to make it more strict than what’s going on right now.”
Since Emmonak became damp in 2016, there have been several attempts to go back to being dry, the last one in 2019, but the initiatives either didn’t get enough signatures or enough votes, Andrew said.
“They tried three times,” he said. “Three times, it didn’t pass.”
Andrew said he believes the best option for Emmonak would be to have a liquor store that only sells beer and wine and has strict rules around purchase limits.
“The great thing about the Alaska State Constitution and Alaska Title 4 is that it gives those communities the sovereign ability to choose what’s right for them,” said Gonzales, with the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. “It really comes down to public health and safety — that’s usually where the conversation is centered around.”
Next steps for the petition
To move forward with the change in Utqiaġvik, petitioner Amirr needs to collect 260 signatures by Jan. 23. If he does, the city clerk will have 10 days to verify that all signatures belong to voters registered in the city and up to 75 days to hold a special election.
If the majority of voters casting ballots approve the change, the sale of alcoholic beverages within the city will be allowed only by the municipality. Then the mayor, with the help of attorneys, will write a draft ordinance “fulfilling the wishes of the community” and present it to the council and residents for their input during a regular meeting.
“If the petitioner gathers all the signatures and it is ratified by the voters, then the discussion begins of what our package store would look like,” Toovak said. “The most asked question we get is, will the City of Utqiaġvik require a background check? This question would be asked of our council and community.”
Depending on the alcohol establishment that voters approve, the city would then need to apply for a license through the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, Gonzales said.
A similar petition in Utqiaġvik was put forward about five years ago, Toovak said, but not enough registered voters signed it in time, and it didn’t make it to an election.
“Although it is Mr. Amirr asking for the change, he has many supporters, and it sounds like he’s closer to collecting signatures than the previous attempts,” Toovak said in an email. “It’s all a probability at this point.”
Residents can express their opinions about the petition at any time, Toovak said. The city holds public meetings every fourth Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and will hold special meetings if the petition gathers enough signatures.
Toovak said residents have also asked her about the ways to fully prohibit alcohol in Utqiaġvik and about making edibles legal in local marijuana dispensaries.
“All it takes is one person or a coalition to ask for a change in our ordinances or local options, either in person or through email or a formal letter,” Toovak said.