The city of Dillingham is protesting the transfer of a liquor license from one location to another across town. The new location for the second Olsen’s Liquor Store would be in a residential area, and that’s met with resistance from the neighborhood. While the city can protest the transfer, the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board will ultimately decide whether or not it goes through. The city council took up the issue again this week.
Dozens turned out to speak or just see how the council would vote at Thursday’s meeting. At issue is whether or not Olsen’s Liquor Store will move from an underused location inside the Willow Tree Bar to a new “Country Store” on Raspberry Circle up Lake Road.
It’s a state license, but the city has the right to protest, Mayor Alice Ruby told the council.
“And in this case, the city filed a letter of protest, and our letter was based on a lack of public notice. That’s the justification we put in the letter,” she said.
That happened in August. Whether or not the owner Mike Keenan met the statutory requirements to let the public know his plans has been a moot point for many; they say he could’ve done a much better job letting his new neighbors know his plans, a sentiment Ruby also reflected.
“I do feel like Mr. Keenan met the minimum standards, but in our community the minimum just wasn’t adequate. I feel like there could’ve been more done in advance just as a good corporate citizen,” Ruby said.
The owner says he has met the state’s requirements, and is working in good faith to open a business customers want. He attended the council meeting by phone; the general manager of the downtown liquor store Kim Parker made the case in person.
“I’m here to ask you to remove the protest to the relocation of the Olsen’s Liquor Store. There are no zoning laws in Dillingham to separate commercial business from residential,” said Parker. “At the Dillingham Liquor Store, there have been zero violations since Mike Keenan purchased the business. I repeat, zero. We have a good working relationship with the local law enforcement and the state troopers. We operate the store in a socially responsible manner, with a high regard for the law.”
Parker carried with her a petition with a 187 signatures in support of the new liquor store, but none others stood to speak Thursday. Instead the council heard from 17 others who were adamantly opposed.
“The increase in teenagers getting a hold of booze out there is going to way higher. They will go to that store as opposed to downtown because of proximity to law enforcement,” John Montooth said.
“I live on Mossberry, and as a mother and person from the neighborhood, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Michelle Smith said.
“I’m certain if there’s a liquor store in that neighborhood that there’s going to be increases of motor vehicle crashes and all the other associated problems with drunk driving,” Ron Bowers offered.
“Although I do appreciate the liquor store’s not having any violations and I really do appreciate their work with law enforcement, this just isn’t a good fit for the neighborhood,” Diane Folsom said.
Two state troopers spoke up in opposition, saying increased alcohol sales and use would likely lead to more problems they will have trouble responding to. Rex Spofford, who also works in law enforcement but spoke as a private citizen, brought up the concern of selling alcohol so near to the Manokotak trail.
“This is the interstate in the winter for our neighbors to the west who have chosen and continue to choose to remain as local option communities. Decisions that have been made by their elders and leaders who have seen the devastating impact alcohol has had on their families,” Spofford said. “The leadership in these communities is very concerned about having a liquor store in the proposed location, given the ease of accessibility and likely the increased difficulty in detecting importation activity.”
Olsen’s Liquor Store said it knows how to sell alcohol responsibly and help curb trafficking, and touts its zero license violations and cooperation with law enforcement. But the message given to the council Thursday night was overwhelmingly in opposition, and borderline prohibitionist.
“As a physician for thirteen years in Dillingham, I have already seen too much alcohol related sadness and tragedy, and do not want it to increase either in my neighborhood, in Dillingham, or in the villages,” Dr. Juliana Montooth said. She also lives near Raspberry Circle. “Mr. Keenan, the owner fighting for this location, will not even be in Dillingham to suffer the bad consequences of the wealth he is gaining.”
In filing its initial protest in August, the council said it was hoping in part to solicit some public opinion, which it certainly received. The vote to keep the protest in place was unanimous Thursday.
The owner can appeal to the Alaska ABC Board, arguing he has met the state’s legal requirements and Dillingham’s arguments are arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious. The city will have to defend its protest to the Board at its October 26 meeting in Nome.