As the sun was starting to set Wednesday evening in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood, there was a steady flow of customers buying single cans of beer at the Family Superette corner store.
Many of those patrons were buying fortified beer, which has an alcohol content of 5.7 percent or more and could soon be banned for sale in the neighborhood in an effort to curb public drunkenness.
When told of the possible ban, many customers said the restrictions would be discriminatory and worthless, especially with liquor sales about to begin at most Spokane grocery stores later this spring.
“Leave our neighborhood alone,” said Debbie Allison, who bought a can of beer that wouldn’t be affected by a high-octane booze ban.
Others, however, say that ban on fortified beer in place since 2010 in downtown Spokane has forced problems to spread to other inner-city neighborhoods. Enlarging the areas of the ban is one of the few tools the city has to slow problems caused by beer that gets people drunk quickly, police say.
T.J. Moss, who lives in West Central, said she supports a ban.
“It’s just screwing up people’s heads. There’s just too many bums out trying to get money to get drunk,” she said. “It’s just pathetic.”
Creating alcohol impact areas
The Spokane City Council last year approved two alcohol impact areas in addition to downtown, including one in West Central. The other was an expanded boundary for the East Central neighborhood to include the South Perry Street district. That impact area already had been approved in 2010, but residents requested the expansion. After the borders were drawn, the city asked stores in the areas voluntarily to sign agreements to stop selling single cans of fortified beer. None did, and only Fred Meyer on Thor Street cut back on its fortified beer selection, said police Senior Officer Max Hewitt, who oversees the alcohol impact area program for the city.
The lack of cooperation gave city leaders and the Washington State Liquor Control Board the option to ban the sale of fortified beer within the boundaries if they could prove that public inebriation and other problems have continued or gotten worse.
The impact area in East Central has already been in place long enough – six months – for the city to move to ban the drinks.
If Mayor David Condon agrees, the state Liquor Control Board would have the final say.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Condon is reviewing the proposal to move East Central to a ban and will seek the opinions of neighborhood business groups before making a final decision.
Hewitt said statistics show that the downtown ban on the sale of fortified beer caused a decline in emergency calls related to public drunkenness downtown. But calls increased in West Central and East Central.
In East Central, for instance, the Fire Department responded to 46 alcohol-related incidents in 2009 between May 31 and Oct. 31.
During the same period in 2011, that number more than doubled to 95, Hewitt said.
Community Detox Service of Spokane responded 62 times to East Central in 2009 and 112 times in 2011, Hewitt said.
The city pursued an alcohol impact area for West Central after the Fire Department noticed a similar significant increase in calls in that neighborhood after the downtown ban, Hewitt said.
‘Cheapest beer in town’
As large as the sign for the business itself is a banner that hangs on the Hico Market in the South Perry Business District touting its prices on booze.
“We have the cheapest prices in town on beer, wine and cigarettes!” it says in red, all-capital letters.
The banner, which technically violates the city’s sign ordinance, has hung on the business at least since last summer.
Hico’s owner, Mo Habte, also owns Mo’s Market on Thor. Both would be affected if the alcohol impact area ban becomes mandatory.
Habte said beer sales have increased only minimally since the downtown ban.
“Our customers are neighborhood residents,” he said. “They’re not coming from downtown.”
He said a ban could hurt the businesses enough to force them to close. Each of the affected locations sells about 100 cases of fortified beer each week, he said.
“We’re going to lose a lot of sales because of that,” he said. “We cannot survive.”
But Hewitt said he’s talked with people drinking fortified beer downtown who told him that they frequent Hico on Perry.
“I would ask them why they would go so far and they said because it was cheaper than going to Sonnenberg’s” Market on East Sprague, Hewitt said. “Since they couldn’t get it downtown they would go that far.”
Mike Simmons, who holds signs asking for money and is homeless, usually buys a can of Natural Ice, which has 5.9 percent alcohol, each night at the Family Superette.
He said he usually avoids brands like Four Loko and Hurricane High Gravity that have 8 or 12 percent alcohol but doesn’t think the sales should be banned. Governments would be better off using its energy helping people find jobs, and banning booze is simply a “Band-Aid,” he said.
People buy the higher-potency beers because they offer a cheaper buzz, he said.
“If you have $2.69 and you have the shakes, that’s what you’re going to get,” Simmons said.
West Central resident Carol Burford said any ban should affect the whole city. Picking single neighborhoods is classist and discriminatory, she said.
“It shouldn’t matter the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s not like we don’t have cars.”
Grocery store liquor sales
The alcohol impact areas won’t affect the sales of hard liquor in those neighborhoods, at least not initially. Grocery stores like Rosauers in Browne’s Addition and Fred Meyer in East Central will be able to sell liquor like most other groceries after the state monopoly on liquor sales ends.
The alcohol impact area law will, however, allow the city to request a ban on certain kinds of liquor if it can prove that it’s causing significant problems, Hewitt said.
“I don’t anticipate the price of spirits decreasing to the point where it would be competing with ice beers,” he said.
City Council members said they’re concerned that the bans will push problems to other locations.
Council President Ben Stuckart said the city should explore a citywide ban.
“If you’re just pushing it outward and outward, why wouldn’t you ban the high-octane beer citywide?” he said.