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Washington: State bans sale of cheap liquor in downtown Olympia

The state Liquor Control Board on Tuesday banned the sale of cheap, high-alcohol beverages in downtown Olympia.

Tuesday’s ruling means that the city’s new Alcohol Impact Area will take effect Feb. 15. Businesses within the impact area will no longer be allowed to sell the following beverages: Steel Reserve, Hurricane High Gravity, Milwaukee’s Best Ice, Olde English 800 (regular and high gravity), Mickey’s Ice, Four Loko, Mike’s Harder Lemonade and Keystone Ice.

Olympia pursued the ban primarily to reduce public drunkenness and litter. The initiative began in early 2011 and included a voluntary compliance effort. According to the city, only four out of nine liquor licensees in the area voluntarily stopped selling the beverages.

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.

The liquor board will mail notices this month to retailers within the impact area. The retailers will face an extended review process for liquor license applications and renewals.

At the Washington Street Market, across from the Olympia Transit Center, the most popular beverage is Steel Reserve. This high-gravity lager contains 8.1 percent alcohol. A 24-ounce “single-serve” can sells for $1.49, and is available for purchase after 1 p.m. because of restrictions imposed by alcohol distributors.

Store owner Jemy Yu was aware of the voluntary compliance period but sold the beverages anyway. He said the upcoming ban should have minimal effect on his business.

“If they can’t buy high-alcohol (drinks),” Yu said of his customers, “they’ll buy something else.”

Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison, was pleased to see the Alcohol Impact Area enacted.

More than 1,000 beer and wine containers were picked up in the downtown core during a recent 10-week cleanup period, Wilson said. Staff and volunteers conducted 10 sweeps of the area, and 71 percent of the containers they found came from drinks on the banned list.

The ban is one piece of a larger puzzle when addressing issues downtown. The relatively easy access to these beverages hurts businesses and threatens public safety, Wilson said.

“I’m excited to see progress,” he said.

Jeffrey Trinin, a business owner and board member of the Olympia Downtown Association, said the initiative will lead to a cleaner and more family-friendly downtown.

“We have broad-based support in the business community,” he said. “Olympia is also downtown for Thurston County, so we want to make it a pleasant experience.”

But not all business owners support the Alcohol Impact Area. Sydney Hann, who owns the Hot Toddy clothing store on Capitol Way, agrees that trash and public intoxication are serious problems downtown. She regularly sees people passed out near her business, and she often cleans up feces and vomit.

However, Hann said the ban on high-alcohol beverages unfairly penalizes the businesses that sell them. She said other alcoholic beverages will simply take the place of the forbidden drinks.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Hann, adding that she’d like to see more police presence downtown. “I don’t see any real change. What we need is enforcement of existing laws.”

Olympia petitioned the liquor board to formally recognize the Alcohol Impact Area after the city’s attempts to address the problem through community-based voluntary efforts. Other cities with Alcohol Impact Areas include Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane. According to a 2009 assessment, two Seattle impact areas saw a decline in alcohol-related police calls. There was also an increase in retailers who said their neighborhoods were cleaner and safer.

Source: The Olympian