Council votes to support renewal of Quick Stop’s liquor license
By Diana Haecker
In a nearly five-hour long meeting marathon, the Nome Common Council on Monday heard heart-wrenching public testimony and debated the question how to curb alcohol-fueled misbehavior on Front Street. What spurred the decades-old debate to resurface was that the state’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Board, which issues liquor licenses statewide, invited the City to comment on the North West Company’s Quick Stop liquor store’s license renewal application. The license renewal is still in the name of Nome Liquor, the store’s former name. It appeared that much of the problems encountered daily between the Nugget Inn hotel, the Quick Stop store and the Visitor Center on Front Street stem from the convenience of alcohol sales in the area. But what is the best way to begin solving the issue in the absence of a residential alcohol and substance abuse treatment center? Or adequate housing solutions? Or any City measures to curb quantity of alcohol sales or business hours? The Council did not agree on much that night, but did agree on the necessity to find an array of solutions rather than waiting to solve the problem in one fell swoop. After lengthy debate, one of the solutions presented was a motion by Councilman Scot Henderson to protest the liquor license for the store, based on the fact that annually nearly 1,000 calls for service – police and ambulance- came in from that particular area of town. The motion failed by a three to four vote. Voting to protest the license was Scot Henderson, Jerald Brown and Meghan Sigvanna Topkok. The nays were Mark Johnson, Adam Martinson and Doug Johnson. Mayor John Handeland cast the tie breaking nay vote.
Mark Johnson then made a motion to recommend the license to be renewed but with conditions attached. Conditions were to allow the sale of only one bottle of hard liquor up to 750 ml per person per day and to set up additional security in the store. The motion passed five to one, with Scot Henderson casting the nay vote.
The Council agreed to follow up with city ordinances to address hours of operation for all package liquor stores in Nome to level the playing field and to get a better handle on all alcohol sales in town.
The meeting began with a work session and Mayor Handeland framed the conversation saying that although the special meeting was about the liquor license renewal from Quick Stop, he also allowed comments from the public on alcohol sales or package stores in general. The legal basis for a protest is laid out in the letter to the city from the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office: A local government may protest the approval of an application by giving a clear and concise written statement of reasons for the protest within 60 days of receipt of the notice and by giving the applicant an opportunity to defend the application before a meeting of the local governing body. Since the clock began ticking on November 22, Friday, January 21 marked the deadline to file the protest.
Deputy Nome Police Chief Robert Pruckner presented statistics from a five-year time span of calls for service from addresses adjacent to Nome Quickstop, Nome Visitor Center, Bering Sea Restaurant and Nugget Inn. 2017 had 916 calls; 2018 and 2019 had 1056 calls each year; 2020 saw 953 calls and 2021 saw 998 calls. This, Scot Henderson said, is reason enough to protest the license. He pointed to Bethel, where the city council protested a package store license for 100 calls for service.
But, the argument was voiced, does that not just relocate the problem to a different part of town? Rhonda Schneider, executive director of the Nome Community Center, said that the problem lies with the lack of resources for those with addictions. “Folks who we are talking about have addictions. People with addictions can’t drink responsibly, they’re going to walk wherever to get it. There is more to it than curbing or protesting licenses.”
The Council wrestled with an approach and the magnitude of the problem. Was protesting the license and thereby trying something new yield any results? Or should it be left up to an ordinance to limit store hours and what to sell and in what quantities and to whom? “So now we’re going to tell liquor stores how to sell liquor?” asked Henderson. And, he reminded the Council, the panel tried to go down that road years ago and the measures failed.
Tom Vaden, a longtime emergency responder, testified that ambulance volunteers are burned out and turn off their pagers because more often than not do they get called away from their work or families to respond to picking up an intoxicated person on Front Street. He said he is troubled by the fact that more and more young people “join the party” outside the Nome Quickstop and Visitor Center area.
Drew McCann, director of the Visitor Center, asked the Council to protest the license on the basis of being in the public interest and that it’s just not a suitable location for liquor sales.
The most heart-wrenching testimony came from James Ventress, who runs the Checkpoint Youth Center just across the street from the liquor store. He described the hardship of the youth who have to witness their relatives being drunk, or getting arrested. He said how many times does he have to console the teenagers at Checkpoint who think that even though they detest alcohol, they’re looking at their own future when they see the drunken despair in front of them. “Our teens are getting drawn into this, they witness this,” he said. And he said, what concerns him also, is when teens are numb to the sight. During Checkpoint hours, Ventress said, he caught people on the back deck of the church fornicating. He described how folks linger on the stairs to the Checkpoint, and that cleaning up the litter of red caps, bottles, cigarette butts and vomit is a regular thing. He said, he’s checking on those who pass out and offers them warmth and a bite to eat, but he is also concerned about increased belligerence and that the Checkpoint teens are being harassed. “Why do they need two liquor licenses?” he asked. AC also operates a liquor store in their grocery shop on Bering Street. “Really, what is AC communicating to us as a community? The people need rehab, they need help and housing, but they don’t need a liquor store a few steps away from where they live,” Ventress said. He recommended protesting the license.
Andrew James, of Maruskiya’s, a few doors east of the liquor store, said that Front Street has changed incrementally over time and urged help for the people who are suffering. “These people need help with a substance abuse disorder. Denying a license is a good start for an ongoing omnipresent problem that alcohol is,” he said.
Three representatives from AC addressed the Council as well. From Anchorage came Walt Pickett, the general manager. He laid out the company’s position: without alcohol sales, the Nome Quick Stop would not be viable and thus would have to close and letting go of eight to 10 employees. And the city would have yet another empty store front on Front Street. The problems would just move up the street to Hanson’s and Anvil City Square. He offered compromises: Limiting sales of hard liquor, limiting the quantity available; have a referendum if Nome wants to be damp or dry; or have a city-run liquor store where the city controls who they sell it to and in what quantities.
Julius Rankin, manager of Quick Stop, said that he doesn’t allow sales of alcohol to intoxicated individuals, they identified so-called runners and put them on the ban list of individuals who can’t buy alcohol and they already limit the quantity of hard liquor sold to individuals. “We get a lot of push-back,” said Rankin. “Just last Friday I was assaulted, a lady was screaming and yelling at us, because I said no. We work hard to make sure that when alcohol goes out the door, it gets into sober hands.”
Councilmember Scot Henderson didn’t take kindly to what he perceived as a threat to the city when Pickett talked about the consequences of shutting down the store. Henderson said he found the numbers of 1,000 calls for service for the 500 square foot area in the vicinity staggering. “I’m a firm believer that government should not control business but if you have so many negative things like addiction and homelessness happening, maybe government needs to say ‘This is not ok,’” he said. For Doug Johnson, a protest of the license felt like a “knee-jerk” reaction as he believed it would not solve the broader issue.
Mark Johnson said he also doesn’t believe in government interference with business, but this issue is bigger and he recommended to attach strings to renewal and then follow up with ordinances controlling liquor sales and hours.
Sigvanna Topkok pointed to the root of the problem as historic trauma and the need for a treatment center.
After the protest motion was voted down and the motion to recommend renewal with strings attached passed, the council members vowed to let this not be the last of the debate and that discussions on ordinances will follow. However, a disappointed Chuck Fagerstrom had the final word, saying that the Council had yet again let the youth and the residents of Nome down by allowing business as usual continue.