Citizens Asked To Weigh In On A Proposed Liquor Store in Bethel

An application for Bethel’s first liquor store in four decades is still alive.

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The board tabled the final decision and wants to hold a meeting to hear directly from Bethel residents. It dealt the Bethel Native Corporation a victory in shooting down the city’s formal request to stop the license, but the board can still reject their application.

The board is required to honor protests and reject licenses unless the protests are quote “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable,” which is what three of five voting members found in their quarterly meeting held in Fairbanks.

Ana Hoffman, President and CEO of the Bethel Native Corporation said the city’s reasoning relied on bad information.

“The protest is not based on any facts of any kind. It’s based on data from a 5.5 year old advisory vote and the reluctance of the city council to take any other position until they can ‘feel good’ about where the equilibrium of the community is regarding alcohol sales. The equilibrium for Bethel is that the community is wet and to make one that is responsible, defensible, and consistent with the law.”

Bethel Native Corporation is the local corporation established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The Alaska Commercial Company store had also applied for a license but dropped their request until citizens vote again. Bethel voted out of local option status in 2009, paving the way for legal sales and unlimited imports of alcohol. The new application is the first in five years.

Bethel Vice Mayor Leif Albertson was surprised at the board’s action.

“I feel like it’s an affront to our city council who put a lot of time into deciding this issue to be told we’re arbitrary and capricious about this. It should be an affront to anyone who lives in this community who feels we should have a local opportunity to make decisions for ourselves.”

BNC has been pushing hard for the store as they have been without a tenant at their multimillion dollar new retail complex since it was vacated by Swanson’s grocery store this spring.  They collected 500 letters of support and brought on a prominent lawyer to support their case, Phil Blumstein, who argued the city was evading the state’s liquor laws.

“The legal issue at the center of this protest is whether the city can properly base its protest on its belief that liquor sales should be illegal in Bethel, or its belief that the public believes liquor sales should be allowed in Bethel, where the votes have in deciding the issue the only way the law allows,  have repeatedly voted for sales to be legal.”

Several community groups have formally opposed the application, like the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation and the Lower Kuskokwim School District. They cite the region’s high rates of alcoholism and the disproportionate number of alcohol-related crimes and domestic violence. The city’s had a rocky past with bars and liquor stores prior to the 1970s when Bethel banned them.