Olympia officials and business owners made a final plea to the Washington State Liquor Control Board this week to expand the list of banned alcoholic beverages for sale downtown.
The proposal is part of the city’s Alcohol Impact Area, which took effect in February 2014 to reduce public intoxication and litter. At the time, the city banned the sale of nine high-octane beverages including Four Loko, Steel Reserve, Olde English 800 and Mickey’s Ice. Many of these drinks approach or exceed 8 percent alcohol while costing $2 or less for a 24-ounce can.
The city has credited the AIA for a 20 percent reduction in alcohol-related litter in the downtown core. However, other brands have replaced the banned brands on the original list, and the city reports no significant drop in arrests for drinking in public.
In response, the city wants to ban 64 total beverages ranging from malt liquor to fortified wines. The new brands include Earthquake, Colt 45, Bud Light Lime-A-Rita, Ice House, MD 20/20, Natty Daddy, Joose, Night Train Express, Sparks and Thunderbird. Many of these are already banned in other cities with an AIA.
At least 10 people spoke in favor of the new list Wednesday during a public hearing at the board’s headquarters in Olympia. Liquor board members Russ Hauge and Jane Rushford gave no specific timeline for announcing a decision on approving or rejecting the request.
The AIA is part of the Downtown Project, the city’s multifaceted plan to improve prosperity downtown. Since 2011, city staff have invested thousands of hours to show the AIA’s effectiveness, said Brian Wilson, downtown liaison.
With the expanded list, the city wants to avoid coming back to the liquor board with requests to ban more products, Wilson said.
“We don’t view an Alcohol Impact Area as a silver bullet,” Wilson said at Wednesday’s hearing. “Rather, it’s a key piece in a larger puzzle toward revitalizing downtown.”
Sgt. Sam Costello of the Olympia Police Department’s walking patrol told the board that high-alcoholic beverages contribute to disorderly behavior downtown — including urination and defecation in alleys and business alcoves. The expanded list of banned beverages will serve as a critical tool for law enforcement in fostering a perception of safety, he said.
“Downtown Olympia is not an unsafe place,” Costello said. “What we’re looking for is to try to mitigate some of the things that cause the crime and disorder that we’re dealing with.”
Not everyone in downtown Olympia supports the effort to restrict alcohol sales. Perry Park, owner of Capitol Lake Grocery at 511 Capitol Way, said he deserves the same rights as any licensed alcohol retailer.
When the ban first took effect last year, Park said his order volume for alcohol decreased by 70 percent. He said the latest proposal leaves retailers vulnerable to further restrictions, especially as customers find alternative beverages to purchase.
“You’re not going to stop these transients from drinking alcohol,” Park told The Olympian. “The problem is much bigger than alcohol. It’s a societal issue.”
That societal issue was noted at Wednesday’s hearing by Skip Steffen, executive director of Olympia Union Gospel Mission. He spoke in support of the expanded list, and said easy access to cheap alcohol is pandering to the desires of people on the street who already suffer from addiction.
“I see the human impact of these beverages every day,” he said.
The Washington Beer and Wine Distributors Association is pushing back against the expanded list as well as Alcohol Impact Areas in general. Scott Hazlegrove, executive director, asked the board Wednesday to deny Olympia’s petition, saying the city failed to meet the burden of proof to support the revised ban.
However, the board confirmed earlier that Olympia’s petition meets the requirements of Washington Administrative Code.
Hazlegrove said there is no evidence that the products on Olympia’s list were sold in the Alcohol Impact Area, and noted that banned products are still appearing in the area. Instead, he suggested that the liquor board focus on establishing standards for evaluating Alcohol Impact Areas.
“We believe there’s a fundamental question of whether Alcohol Impact Areas work,” he said.
The Alcohol Impact Area’s approximate borders are Water Street to the west, Eastside Street to the east, Marine Drive and Olympia Avenue to the north, and 14th Avenue to the south.
Other cities including Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane have established Alcohol Impact Areas to address similar problems.