Popular Bethel store no longer allowed to sell alcohol

Published: May. 22, 2018 at 10:30 PM AKDT
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Beginning Wednesday morning, the AC Quickstop in Bethel is no longer allowed to sell alcohol after a unanimous decision by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Tuesday.

The board reached the decision after more than six hours of public testimony in Bethel that involved more than 75 people passionately asking the board not to renew the liquor license to Bethel’s main liquor store.

That leaves one store in the community that can sell alcohol, but it is only open 30 days of the year. A third liquor license is privately held, but it’s unclear what will happen to it.

Tuesday morning, before public testimony began, and as the board flew to town from Anchorage, employees from the AC Quickstop were busy picking up old beer cans, smashed Monarch vodka bottles, and other trash that became visible as the snow melted, revealing the sins of a long winter.

The store doesn’t open until 1:00 p.m., but through the window, between the rod-iron bars, a $20 special on Mike’s Hard Lemonade was on display on the front shelf.

Across the street, a brown and white dog was tied to a broken washer and dryer outside of a crooked wooden home. The store is in the largest neighborhood in Bethel.

Alcohol sales started again at the AC Quickstop in 2016, after the people of Bethel voted to allow selling alcohol again, after more than 40 years. The business is owned by Alaska Commercial Co., which owns more than 30 stores in remote communities throughout Alaska.

After two years of sales, the license was in jeopardy after the city council protested the liquor license renewal. In October, the voters will once again decide if alcohol should be sold anywhere in Bethel.

Additionally, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board heard public testimony surrounding the renewal of two liquor licenses and the transfer of one license in the community.

Many people in Bethel say that since the AC started selling alcohol, deaths have increased, along with violent crimes and other abuses.

“It’s safe to say Bethel, the whole region, the whole (Kuskokwim) Delta, has a significant alcohol problem,” Bethel Police Chief Burke Waldron said.

Bethel, the largest community in the area, is often the hub to the surrounding 56 villages.

Many people here say they voted to allow the sale of alcohol because they believed it would get rid of bootleggers. Instead, police say, people now buy alcohol in Bethel and sell it illegally down the river.

“I voted for on the basis of stopping bootlegging because I knew it was prevalent,” Danielle Craven from Bethel said. “I had grown up with the unhealthy drinking culture of Bethel and that is so rampant in our villages. It's a very unhealthy culture that's unlike Outside (of Alaska).”

About 150 people filled a room to testify. Many spoke about having a family member who died because of alcohol.

“Ever since the liquor store opened people are hurting,” Peter Atchak said. “People are suffering," he said, telling the board that in December, he lost his 31-year-old daughter to alcohol.

The city council says it spoke with the AC company about the concerns with the store, including its location near a low-income neighborhood, a school and a popular park. The council says it also asked the store to hire security.

AC officials have previously said they have worked with nearby villages to look for solutions including the idea of creating a do-not-sell list. The store already does not sell to people with bootlegging convictions and other restrictions. Tuesday afternoon, AC general manager Walter Pickett said he stands by his previous comments.

“If we were not good stewards, if we were not community members, our business would not be what it is today,” Pickett said.

Pickett also told the board he is willing to work toward solutions, including moving the liquor store to a new location and closing on Sundays.

“We are probably one of the best to sell legally, because we set very high standards," Pickett said.

Once the board voted not to renew the license the people who were still left after a long day of testimony began clapping.