Brown Paper Democracy
No stranger to bars, I’ve spent many an evening showing half-interested spectators the collection of 80’s baseball cards on display at the Homey Inn. As summer slipped away and bars stayed open later, nights took on a relaxed, almost Southern Gothic feel. Post smoking ban, patios only added to the front porch aesthetic.
These twin changes have been relatively non-controversial, especially the rather muted response to moving back bar closing times by an hour. That may have something to do with how the change was presented, not as a state-wide law, but as a friendly offer, sold with the hook that cities would have a say in the matter. It’s your community, you decide.
When bars close is a local issue left up to each city, but did you know that who actually gets a liquor license is not? Omaha residents have started a campaign called LOCAL to have their voices heard on an issue of importance: the growing number of package liquor outlets in residential areas.
Alcohol Density and LOCAL
Commonly referred to as alcohol density, studies show a direct link between liquor licenses and crime. Research by Rebecca Murray of Creighton University indicates that each license on a residential city block "increases the expected number of felonious assaults on that block by 68.90%." Likewise, a 2007 study of Oakland, CA by the Urban Strategies Council found that "as the rate of liquor outlets increases in a community, so does the rate of overall crime."
This has become a major issue for local neighborhood associations. For instance, there are four off-sale alcohol licenses within one block of 33rd & California Streets. This same block is home to a community bike shop, a permaculture garden, the Shelterbelt Theatre, Gifford Park, and an outdoor market supported by two nearby community gardens. "My wife and I have lived in the neighborhood for 25 years," said Chris Foster of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association. "As far as investment and improvement in the business district, this neighborhood has always fought a big image problem in terms of crime and public safety. A big part of that has been the problems associated with alcohol."
While we should focus on all of the positive things that are happening in our city, we also have to address the challenges we face as a community.
Liquor Licenses in Omaha
How democratic is the process by which liquor licenses approved? Earlier this year the Omaha City Council voted against 13 of 20 Walgreens liquor license applications. Turns out, the City Council can only make a non-binding recommendation, the final decision lies with the unelected Nebraska Liquor Control Commission (LCC) in Lincoln. Appointed by the governor to six-year terms, the three-person commission has complete authority over alcohol licensing. Against the recommendation of the City Council, the LCC approved all 20 Walgreens licenses. Last December, when a store clerk was fatally shot at a Howell’s BP station, the City Council recommended denial based on documented violence and crime. Once again the LCC approved the license.
Project Extra Mile, Enough is Enough, Alcohol Impact Coalition, and 13 Omaha Neighborhood Associations have come together to support a new initiative called Campaign for LOCAL (Let Omaha Control its Alcohol Landscape) Control. Their goal is to work with the City Council to give Omaha a vote in the process. The initiative is proposing a new zoning ordinance that would give Omaha the authority to make it’s own alcohol licensing decisions and protect the quality of life throughout the city.
Local business owner John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits in Benson, is sympathetic to their concerns, and is in favor of Omaha having more control over alcohol related decisions. "I’m always in favor of competition, but when certain social issues are involved, local elected officials should have more control to intervene if necessary," said Larkin.
The system seems to be broken. Every politician wants to be pro-business, but the quality of a business should be taken into consideration when it affects the overall health and economic vitality of the city. When does the sheer number of liquor licenses start to hurt existing license holders who view their businesses as established partners in the community? At that point, who’s economic interests are being served? The city of Omaha can’t afford to value the status quo of short term thinking over building sustainable, thriving communities where businesses want to invest. For all the talk of taking back our country, what about our neighborhoods?
Local groups are coming together to positively affect the place they call home, and to have a voice in building a healthy, safe community that is economically vibrant as well. In an effort to raise awareness, build support, and plan steps to get the new ordinance passed, a kick-off event for LOCAL is scheduled Saturday, October 2 at 10 am in Memorial Park.
How are liquor licensing laws affecting your neighborhood? Please comment below.