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Kotzebue voters decide to keep liquor store

October 14th, 2016 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

Kotzebue's liquor store will stay right where it is and locals will continue being able to buy and possess alcohol in the community.

Voters rejected the proposal to change Kotzebue's local option and revert to being a "damp" community by a two to one ratio in the Oct. 4 regular election.

The city released the unofficial results on Oct. 5, noting there were still absentee, question, and special needs ballots yet to be counted.

The final tally, showing 463 votes against the change trumping 204 votes in favor, will become official when they are certified by the canvass board.

"I think it shows that at least 70 percent of the people in Kotzebue feel that the city is being responsible about the way it's not only running the package store but using the revenue," said Joe Evans, city attorney.

The proposal, backed by local resident Hans B. Nelson, had much of the community comparing and contrasting the benefits of revenue from the store with the individual moral considerations of selling alcohol in the community.

"At the end of the day it became a real issue as far as money goes," Nelson said. "A lot of folks who are non-drinkers, from what I saw, felt money is a real issue and that's the basis of it getting the result it did."

The revenues from the city-owned and -operated package store are inextricably tied to a loan the city took out several years ago to help complete both the Swan Lake Small Boat Harbor and other city projects.

The majority of funds made at the store go toward paying off the loan, which has a 10-year time limit. Evans said in an interview before the vote that if the store were to close and the city to lose the revenue, Kotzebue would have to make deep cuts and perhaps default on the loan.

Supporters of the measure argued the city should not have its finances tied up in liquor and should cut costs until they can let it go while those against it saw merit to profiting off of sales that otherwise would move to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Nelson used to drink and has been sober for several years now. However, he lost a sibling to suicide after a problem with addiction not too long ago. In recent years, he's become a strong advocate for sobriety in the community, though he understands the challenges.

"I almost had expected the voters to, I guess, vote it down but I didn't see it being an overarching result like we had," said Nelson.

Looking forward, Nelson said he'll continue pushing to close the store, perhaps taking the conversation to the tribe and the borough, and encouraging people to carefully consider what it means to sell alcohol in a community that struggles with addiction.

"I will continue to push for it because I believe running a liquor store is not a right, it's a privilege," he said.

In an interview before the vote, Nelson noted he'd like to see the city take a more active role in community prevention and show more support for recovery and sobriety efforts.

"I think our kids need to know the effects of alcohol and I think the more they know, the less willing they'll be to jump into it. It's like any other drug. I'm sure education is a factor," Nelson said.

Evans said the city hopes to find a way to reduce costs at the store and increase net revenues so the loan can be paid off as soon as possible.

Once it's paid off, the revenue could perhaps go toward funding more city projects or be tied into a new loan, Evans said before the vote took place.

"I think the city wants to work to show that 30 percent that wanted it closed, that we can do an even better job than we have been doing," said Evans.

While the election is over and the decision to keep the store has been made by voters, the conversation itself about what alcohol means within the community won't be resolved anytime soon.


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