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Liquor board extends fortified beer limits to East Central

Mo Habte, owner of two HICO stores in Spokane, says the ban on some high-test beers in the East Central Neighborhood is unfair because they are the drinks of the poor, unlike high-test microbrews with similar alcohol content that will still be allowed. (Jesse Tinsley)
Mo Habte, owner of two HICO stores in Spokane, says the ban on some high-test beers in the East Central Neighborhood is unfair because they are the drinks of the poor, unlike high-test microbrews with similar alcohol content that will still be allowed. (Jesse Tinsley)

High-octane beers will soon be banned in yet another part of Spokane.

Retailers in the East Central Neighborhood no longer will be permitted to sell certain fortified beers after this summer, part of an effort by City Hall to curb public inebriation and other nuisance problems by restricting access to the cheap, potent booze. The state Liquor Control Board has decided to back the city’s plan.

The crackdown mirrors a similar prohibition for downtown retailers that went into effect two years ago.

Police and neighborhood residents say the drinking has gotten out of control. Some worry about the safety of their children, who walk past parks and convenience store parking lots where chronic inebriates often sit and sleep.

The Liquor Control Board made the decision Wednesday, three weeks after listening to divided testimonies from City Council members, store owners, East Central residents, a police officer and a firefighter.

The list of prohibited products includes 46 fortified beers, each with an alcohol content of 5.7 percent or more. Some sell for little more than $1 per can at minimarts.

The decision will create what officials call a mandatory alcohol impact area, a zone in which stores cannot legally sell the fortified beers. The impact area will stretch from the South Perry district east to Havana Street and extend a couple of blocks south of Interstate 90 and a couple of blocks north of Sprague Avenue.

Officials created the mandatory alcohol impact area in downtown in May 2010 and then a voluntary one in East Central last year. But there was little movement toward compliance at the 13 stores in the East Central area.

Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the board, said the mandatory ban will go into effect Sept. 15.

“You have to give the retailers adequate time to remove the products from the shelves,” Carpenter said.

In the past two years, public drunkenness has largely moved outside downtown, police officer Max Hewitt testified last month.

“The majority of those increases were in the East Central alcohol impact area,” Hewitt said.

Since 2009, East Central has had a 29-percent swell in alcohol-related 911 calls and an 80-percent climb in medical calls resulting in detoxifications, he said. These responses put a heavier cost burden on the police and fire departments.

Hewitt acknowledged one of the main sticking points of those who oppose the ban, saying that making it mandatory may continue to push chronic public inebriates to other areas.

Not all East Central retailers are on board for the ban. Tan Ho, the general manager for the two Hai’s Mini Markets within the impact area, said he will follow the law even though he doesn’t like it.

The ban will be tough on small businesses, Ho said.

Mo Habte, who owns the larger Hico Market on South Perry Street, said he will have to make adjustments to keep his business alive.

“We’re going to cut employees,” Habte said.

He recently spent more than $100,000 to install new coolers that display fortified beers.

Habte plans to replace those products with a larger variety of microbrews, a costlier option for him and consumers.

“They don’t ban these things,” he said, pointing to the microbrews. “It’s expensive, but we don’t have a choice.”

Many of the craft beers on Habte’s shelves have higher alcohol content than the fortified beers. A bottle of Chimay Bleue, a Belgian ale with an alcohol content of 9 percent, sits right next to Habte’s selection of high-octane beer.

“It’s unfair,” he said.



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