Curb on liquor sales closer for areas of city
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle City Council voted Monday to ask the state Liquor Control Board to ban cheap, high-alcohol beer and wine in a large swath of the city core and University District.
The action, on an 8-1 vote, was applauded by neighborhood activists who have regaled the council with stories of late-night fights, public urination and homeless people passing out in yards — all problems they hope will diminish along with the cheap booze.
But the way Aklilu Mekuria figures it, the city wants to put him out of business.
"It will force us, in the long run, to close our doors," Mekuria said, pointing to his small Central Area market's refrigerator shelves, stocked with Olde English 800, Colt 45 malt liquor, and other beers and wines among the 34 products that would be banned in six square miles of the city under the proposed alcohol-impact-area plan.
His concerns echo those of other small market owners, some of them immigrants, who say the rules will destroy businesses they've worked years to build. The state liquor board will have the final say, and could impose the alcohol rules by early next year.
The rules are aimed at homeless alcoholics who have increasingly caused problems in the University District and Capitol Hill since a small alcohol-impact area was imposed on Pioneer Square two years ago.
Meg Olsen, president of Colman Neighborhood Association of Judkins Park, said she came home last year from a vacation to find a woman living in her backyard under a hot-tub shelter, leaving a stack of beer cans and other trash.
Olsen said her neighborhood has encouraged small convenience stores to "remarket" themselves by selling other products, such as fresh flowers, espresso or bread.
"We're not trying to put them out of business," she said. "We're trying to improve their business."
Mekuria, whose store is not in Olsen's neighborhood, said most of his customers are simply working-class folks who can't afford microbrews or chardonnay. Instead, they grab his single cans of cheap malt liquor and while they're at it, get a bag of chips or a corn dog.
Mekuria, an Ethiopian immigrant and U.S. citizen, said he opened his store four years ago and has worked hard to revitalize a neighborhood that has struggled with crime and poverty.
"After we clean it up and make it a nice neighborhood, they don't want us here," he said.
Mekuria said he's irritated that stores only a few blocks away won't be subject to the same rules. The city's proposed alcohol-impact-area boundary ends four blocks east of his store, where the Central Area begins to give way to the more affluent Madrona neighborhood.
But unlike Olsen, Mekuria and other store owners did not make their case to the council before Monday's vote. Some complained they had little notice of the city's action.
One store owner, Elias Kemaw, also an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a small Central Area market, showed up at the council meeting but was confused by the council rules on public comment and left thinking he was not allowed to speak.
Kemaw said "all of the small businesses will be closed, sooner or later" if the liquor board grants the city's request. He said he hoped the City Council would slow down and consider people like him.
But the council was swayed by months of pressure from neighborhood groups and business leaders who have pushed for the alcohol restrictions.
"This is one way we can try to help our neighborhoods," Councilman Tom Rasmussen said.
Seattle's plan is modeled on Tacoma, which received the state's first alcohol-impact-area designation in 2002. A ban there is credited with easing problems in the city's Hilltop neighborhood.
Councilman Richard McIver was the sole dissenting vote, arguing the city would simply push alcohol-related problems to other neighborhoods.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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