Olympia expands downtown alcohol ban to include 64 brands

The Washington State Liquor Control Board has approved a request to ban 64 brands of high-alcoholic beverages in downtown Olympia.

The ban takes effect May 7 in an effort to reduce public intoxication, disorderly conduct and litter. Brands such as Steel Reserve and Four Loko — often costing $2 or less for a 24-ounce can — will no longer be allowed for sale in the city’s Alcohol Impact Area. The list also includes fortified wines such as Thunderbird and MD 20/20.

When it first took effect in February 2014, nine specific beverages — many of which approached or exceeded 8 percent alcohol — were banned from the Alcohol Impact Area downtown. The expanded list comes in response to the alternative brands that have been brought in to replace the banned ones.

Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison, has helped spearhead the effort to address the issue with high-alcohol beverages over the past five years. The process has included voluntary compliance among retailers as well as multiple “litter surveys” that showed a majority of discarded containers were for high-alcohol drinks.

Stores within the downtown AIA have a month to sell off their existing inventory of banned drinks. Once the new list takes effect, the city is required to track data and produce annual reports.

“It’s a labor-intensive process,” said Wilson, who recently met with Bellingham officials interested in forming an AIA in that city.

The beverage industry has consistently pushed back against Olympia’s efforts.

The Washington Beer and Wine Distributors Association asked the liquor board to deny Olympia’s request to expand the list, saying the city failed to meet the burden of proof to support the revised ban. The association also raised questions on the effectiveness and standards for Alcohol Impact Areas.

In moving to adopt the revised list, board member Ruthann Kurose said Olympia presented a credible case with broad support from a wide spectrum of the community.

“Most people don’t want to pick up litter and categorize it, but the community members did this because they wanted to see it through,” Kurose said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Multiple downtown businesses support the expanded list, although some alcohol retailers have said the ban is heavy-handed and reduces business.

Julie Hankins, a member of the Olympia City Council, said the alcohol ban is intended to make downtown a better place, not harm businesses.

“That is such a small piece of the market,” she said of the beverages, “yet it has such a huge impact on the human side.”

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 such as Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane have established such areas to deal with similar issues related to litter and chronic public inebriation.

The expanded list of banned beverages coincides with other efforts to improve public safety and perception in downtown Olympia. On April 24, the Downtown Ambassador Program will unveil a new Downtown Welcome Center at Franklin Street and Fourth Avenue. Starting in May, the Olympia Police Department will add a summer night shift to its downtown walking patrol.