Come June 1, when some grocery stores and other businesses start selling liquor for the first time, two sprawling regulatory zones in Tacoma that now ban sales of cheap, potent beverages suddenly will be infused with a variety of new alcohol options.
At least 11 privately owned businesses within Tacoma’s Alcohol Impact Areas have applied to Washington’s Liquor Control Board for “spirit retail” licenses.
The applicants seeking to sell liquor in Tacoma’s AIAs range from big chain grocery and drug stores to smaller local businesses. They include three Walgreens stores, two Safeways, an Albertsons and a Rite Aid, as well as Stadium Thriftway and downtown’s new Tacoma City Grocery.
But on the eve of private liquor sales coming to Tacoma’s AIAs, local and state officials are anticipating few, if any, problems.
State liquor stores have sold hard alcohol within the state-designated zones for years, they said, with little or no effect on chronic street drunks – the population targeted by AIAs. Still, city police promise to keep an eye on the situation.
“We’re going to pay attention,” said Tacoma Police Lt. Ron Jepson, who helps monitor Tacoma’s alcohol zones. “We’ll respond if we see something going on. But we’re not going to try to prevent something from potentially happening before it happens, or without evidence to suggest that it even will happen.”
Some of the applicants within Tacoma’s AIAs say they’re planning to take precautions nonetheless.
“We’re not going to carry any airplane bottles, any pints or any small quantities that could be purchased by someone with only a buck in their pocket,” said Mike Hargreaves, owner of Stadium Thriftway. “It’s a conscious decision. But we don’t really see (liquor privatization) as being an issue to (the AIAs) at all.”
When Tacoma’s Urban Core District – a zone stretching across six square miles mostly in the Hilltop and downtown – became the state’s first Alcohol Impact Area in late 2001, the goal was to keep cheap, high-octane drink out of the hands of chronic inebriates.
Under the new designation, the state banned sales of about 30 fortified wines and malt-liquor products, including Thunderbird, Night Train and Colt 45.
After a 2003 study found drastic drops in alcohol-related emergency calls, detoxification admissions and reports of public drinking, Tacoma’s new zone became a state model.
Now, designated Alcohol Impact Areas exist in Seattle and Spokane, with voluntary ones in Vancouver, Wash., and coming soon to Olympia. In 2008, Tacoma added a second AIA – the “Lincoln District” that covers parts of the East Side and South End.
Tacoma last updated its banned products lists in 2009. The list now prohibits 46 products, including trendy-but-powerful malt liquors and wines such as Four Loko, Schlitz High Gravity and Mike’s Harder Lemonade.
Meantime, four state-run liquor stores have continued to sell spirits in Tacoma’s AIAs.
“Up until now, there’s always been the ability to ban spirituous products, but no one has done so per se,” said Alan Rathbun, the state liquor board’s licensing director.
The liquor board has opted to not sell “minis” – the small airplane-size bottles – at a few state stores, including one in Tacoma, officials said.
After voters approved Initiative 1183 to allow privatized spirit sales, questions emerged about potential impacts to AIAs.
“The question that keeps coming up is about adding spirituous products to the ban list,” Rathbun said. “It’s ‘maybe, we want to ban pints of vodka’ – or, other products with high alcohol content that can be sold in small quantities at lower prices.”
Tacoma City Council’s public safety committee raised the question to Rathbun in March.
“Can the AIA address by volume and size?” Councilman Marty Campbell asked. “So, in other words, it’s OK to sell gin, it’s just we don’t want it sold in anything under one liter – thinking the chronic inebriate wouldn’t want it in larger sizes?”
That’s allowable, Rathbun said, so long as the ban is specific to a product and a size.
To add certain liquors to a ban list, Tacoma or any other city with an AIA would need first to submit an application to the liquor board, which would then set a public hearing.
The city also would need to prove its case, showing the product in question hurts “the health, safety and welfare of the community,” Rathbun said. That burden is typically met by police monitoring impacts, TPD’s Jepson said.
“How we justify it is by finding a particular type of alcohol at crime scenes, or in abandoned buildings, or at youth parties,” he said. “Whatever the particular issue is, we’ve just had to bring it forward and show this is an issue. Then it’s up to the liquor board to make the decision.”
In the past, the board has supported adding products to a city’s ban list based on officer testimony, statistics, even prohibition of the same product in a different community, Rathbun said. Optimally, the process takes about three to four months, he said.
Tacoma police plan to monitor private liquor sales’ impacts on AIAs, but Jepson said he doesn’t expect problems. Spirits generally cost more than the cheap beer and wine public inebriates typically drink, he said.
Bob McCutchan, who lives on Tacoma’s East Side near McKinley Avenue and worked on formation of the Lincoln District AIA, agrees. He said hard liquor hasn’t been a problem in his neighborhood, and he doesn’t expect that to change when it’s more readily available.
“It does not matter how many outlets there are,” McCutchan said. “Transients have their drink of choice, and they will take the bus or have someone give them a ride to get it.”
Regardless, several private businesses now seeking liquor licenses in the city’s AIAs say they’ll take precautions.
Tacoma City Grocery plans to limit the spirits it carries and will keep it locked up until a customer asks for it, store manager Charlie McKissick said.
All Walgreens locations selling spirits in Tacoma or elsewhere in Washington will carry only a limited quantity – less than 5 percent of total shelf space – with products varying by location, said Robert Elfinger, spokesman for the Chicago-based corporation.
Tacoma Councilwoman Victoria Woodards has said officials for Hilltop’s newly renovated Safeway on South M Street have indicated that store won’t sell liquor. But a store manager told The News Tribune last week that the store hasn’t ruled out spirit sales. He referred a reporter seeking more information to a corporate spokeswoman in Bellevue, who didn’t return calls.
Another prominent Hilltop grocery – Save-A-Lot on Martin Luther King Way – hasn’t applied for a liquor license and store officials said this week that they have no plans to sell spirits.
Meantime, Albertsons on South 38th Street has applied for a license, but store manager Gina Lambert said she’s still waiting for guidance from the corporate office about which products will be sold.
“Obviously, I don’t want to carry items that are going to bring in that kind of clientele” targeted by the AIA, she said.