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Heady times on East Sprague

Sat., Aug. 29, 2009

There are two sides to East Sprague.

There’s the up-and-coming neighborhood business center with new restaurants, successful ethnic markets and a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit.

And there’s the old red light district burdened with prostitution and public intoxication.

Some business leaders in the area, which was recently named the Spokane International District, say they hope a new tool will help them curtail a lingering reputation that keeps some away.

“East Sprague has changed tremendously in the last 20 years,” said Darrell Smith, owner of Boyd-Walker Sewing Machine Co., which has been in the neighborhood 64 years. “But it still has a bad image.”

On Sept. 14, the Spokane City Council will consider the creation of an Alcohol Impact Area along Sprague between Perry and Rebecca streets. Borders would extend north to Main Avenue and south to Fifth Avenue. Stores would be asked to voluntarily stop selling single cans of beer with high alcohol content. If problems don’t decrease within six months or a year, sales could be outlawed.

City Councilman Mike Allen said the idea is to promote “the kind of environment where people and families feel safe to go in and shop or dine and promote commerce.”

Senior police Officer Max Hewitt said transients panhandle to buy beer, and it doesn’t take much effort to get drunk. A 24-ounce can of Hurricane High Gravity beer, with an 8.1 percent alcohol content, sells for 99 cents at Sonnenberg’s Market and Deli.

Hewitt told the Spokane City Council earlier this month that the concept would affect nine businesses that sell alcohol in the neighborhood.

Some carryout managers argue the idea would do little to stop problems. They say most customers drink responsibly, and if their businesses can’t sell beer with high alcohol content, customers will buy other alcoholic beverages or go elsewhere.

Tan Ho, who manages Hai Mini Markets on East Sprague and South Perry, said stopping the sales would hurt the family business. He said Hai markets don’t allow drinking on store property and don’t sell to anyone who is inebriated.

Other neighborhood proprietors say public intoxication scares off customers, burdens emergency responders and is an annoyance to those who clean up the mess. “There are people – whether it be transients, beggars, drug dealers – who go in and buy single cans of high-alcohol-content beer, then throw the beer cans on the sidewalk, in the alley, wherever they happen to be,” said Smith, treasurer of the East Spokane Business Association. “They throw up on the sidewalk” or urinate on the buildings, he added.

Keith Raschko, a founder of One World Spokane, a nonprofit organic restaurant on East Sprague, estimates he calls police two or three times a week because of alcohol-related incidents – often someone passed out after drinking too much.

In 2003, a similar Alcohol Impact Area was created downtown. All the affected stores, at least at first, voluntarily complied, and a compulsory ban was not pursued.

Compulsory bans are in effect in parts of Tacoma and Seattle. A study by Washington State University professor John Tarnai found that after the Tacoma ban started, public-drinking complaints to police dropped 61 percent in downtown Tacoma, and admissions to a detoxification center dropped 21 percent, according to a 2003 Spokesman-Review article.

Opponents of such bans argue they don’t solve the main problem, alcoholism, or do much more than force the problem elsewhere.

Gary Bleck, of Spokane, noted that it’s already illegal to drink on the sidewalk. “All they’ve got to do is enforce the law they already have,” said Bleck, who was gathered with friends Friday at the Checkerboard Tavern.

Spokane resident Kenneth Rodgers said banning sales of single cans could worsen the problem. “Now you’re forcing (transients) to hustle up enough money for six,” Rodgers said. “Then you know they’re going to get drunk.”


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