City officials mulling banning high-octane booze in Tacoma’s West and North ends

Susan Cruise says she’s tired of picking beer cans up off her lawn after living in Central Tacoma for nearly 12 years.

Her house near the intersection of South Madison Street and South 7th Street seems to be an attractive place for drunks to rest and toss their empties.

Cruise told a committee of the Tacoma City Council this week that she called the police nearly 15 times one year because of people drinking by her house. Among the most alarming times was when a man was lying lifelessly on her front lawn in the middle of winter, she said.

“It was sort of startling and concerning,” Cruise said. “It turns out, it was an intoxicated person.”

Stories like hers are one reason the council’s Public Safety, Human Services, and Education Committee is recommending the city adopt a mandatory Alcohol Impact Area in much of the city’s North and West ends.

If the “West End AIA” is approved by the council and the state Liquor Control Board, sales of cheap beer and wine with high alcohol content would be banned, Tacoma Police Officer Don Stodola said.

Stores within the impact area could not sell products such as Olde English 800 with a 5.7 percent alcohol content and Cisco fortified wine with an 18 percent alcohol content.

City Councilman Ryan Mello, a member of the public safety committee, said he has heard complaints from several West End community members. He’s in favor of a mandatory AIA.

“There are many documented stores that sell these high-octane products, and we need to ensure that the people who live in this area don’t have to live with these public nuisances,” he said.

The city tried a voluntary AIA in the West and North ends from last August through February, but only 15 of the 39 stores in the area complied.

The Pearl Mini Mart at 1101 N. Pearl St. was one of the stores that chose not to take the fortified liquor products off its shelves. Carol Hughes, a manager at the store, said last week banning the sale of fortified beer and wine won’t solve the problem.

“Alcoholics will find a new way to get their fix, or they’ll move to a new area and then it becomes someone else’s problem,” she said. “(The ban) would screw us out of a lot of sales and it wouldn’t change the neighborhood.”

Gas and beer are the main drivers of income for the mini mart, Hughes said. She fears the possibility of having her hours reduced if the store is prohibited from selling its most popular products.

On a recent weekday, the store’s highest selling beer, Steel Reserve with an 8.1 percent alcohol content, was running low just hours after the staff had last stocked the shelf. Steel Reserve is one of more than 40 items on the banned products list for alcohol impact areas.

Hughes said she’s rarely had trouble with people coming in drunk and customers would be upset if the store no longer carried these drinks.

But John Knight, the Washington Elementary principal whose student body attended classes at the old Hunt Middle School site this year while its Proctor District building was being renovated, said he’s convinced an AIA is needed.

Hunt is just a couple of blocks away from a convenience store that sells the potent beer and wine. Last fall, the district constructed additional fencing around the back end of the campus to prevent homeless wanderers from loitering and drinking outside the school.

“It’s just a nuisance, and children should not have to look out the window and see adults doing things that we don’t want (the kids) doing,” Knight said.

In 2013, the Tacoma Police Department responded to 677 service calls regarding chronic public inebriates in the greater Tacoma area. Of those, 179 were in the proposed West End AIA, Stodola said.

The proposed mandatory AIA roughly stretches from 19th Street to the Ruston Way waterfront and from Alder Street to Pearl Street and the West Slope. It’s an area slightly smaller than the voluntary AIA, which included park areas like Titlow Beach and Point Defiance where there are no alcohol sales.

Still, at approximately 9 square miles, the proposed West End AIA would be the city’s largest alcohol impact area. It would put most of the city off-limits to sales of cheap, high-alcohol booze.

The City Council and Liquor Control Board approved mandatory AIAs downtown in 2002 and in the Lincoln District in 2008. One year after downtown got an AIA, service calls to that area had been cut nearly in half, according to a spreadsheet compiled by the Tacoma Police Department.

City officials believe that the restrictions on alcohol sales downtown and on the East Side are behind an increase in calls for service in the West End. Stodola believes people seeking a quick way to get drunk are taking buses to the West End to buy fortified beer and wine, he said.

“We’ve had contact with a couple regular chronic public inebriates who live downtown, and we’ve contacted them at the bus stop,” Stodola said.

Stodola said there is a concern that if the West End AIA passes, chronic drunks could again shift to another neighborhood. If that happens, it would be up to that neighborhood to decide what to do, including possibly seeking its own AIA, Stodola said.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she would support banning such sales in the entire city if the state allowed citywide designations.