Barrow mayor proposes city-run liquor store

Although alcohol sales are banned in Barrow, thousands of pounds of alcohol legally arrive every month at a city distribution center.

That’s because voters elected in 1997 to go “damp,” meaning a limited amount of booze can be shipped to Barrow by holders of city-issued permits approved by the borough police department.

Each person can order no more than four boxes of wine, five cases of beer and six 750 ml bottles of liquor. The full monthly order per person costs $400 or more, plus shipping, and weighs roughly 160 pounds, said distribution center manager Abe Stine.

Stine opens the distribution center five days a week, charging people a 3 percent city sales tax and $25 for every order they pick up.

The place looks like a combination dorm room and Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. A picture of Linda Blair’s demonic face from “The Exorcist” hangs on the window facing the street, close to inspirational posters to help people stop drinking.

Go past the AA handbook on the desk and the dusty coffeepot and you can play a few games of Xbox on the small TV tucked in the corner.

December will be a busy month here, Stine said, at least until the city closes the center for Christmas. More than six tons of alcohol arrived here on a single day last December.

While the center earns the Barrow city government $10,000 to $25,000 a month in taxes and fees, most of the money people spend on legal alcohol ends up in Anchorage and Fairbanks cash registers. Some of the liquor will find its way to bootleggers who will sell it on the city’s black market to people who cannot obtain a permit to ship alcohol to Barrow, or who live in one of seven surrounding villages.

Like dozens of other Alaska villages and cities, Barrow once banned alcohol altogether. Voters chose to go “dry” for 18 months ending in 1997.

Today, few people believe total prohibition is a workable solution for the community of more than 4,300 people.

City Mayor Bob Harcharek said he wants to try something else by doing away with the distribution center. Instead, he said in a recent interview, he plans to propose opening a city-owned liquor store. With the exception of a small amount of liquor people can legally fly into Barrow when they travel, all legal alcohol would be sold at the city shop. He plans to propose the idea to city council early next year in hopes of an October vote.

The city needs about $13 million to finish expanding a local recreation center and basketball gym, and could make $2 million to $4 million a year with a liquor store.

“Instead of the money going to, say, Brown Jug,” he said of a popular Anchorage alcohol retailer.

A similar vote failed in 2011, although that proposal would have allowed the distribution center to stay open along with a package store.

“There will be a lot of bootleggers voting for the liquor store to not be here,” Stine said. “That’s probably what happened last time.”