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Booze flows freely in Fresno, but where you find it makes a difference

As Fresno recently weighed what to do about recreational marijuana businesses, several pastors from the city’s poorer central and southern neighborhoods spoke in support of a ban. They said they were already feeling overrun by beer, wine and liquor retailers.

Some of them had no idea how right they were.

Among California’s 10 largest cities, Fresno has the highest concentration of retail stores licensed by the state to sell beer, wine and liquor – more stores per 10,000 residents than Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose or San Francisco, and more than the statewide average, a Fresno Bee analysis shows. The number of licensees exceeds what state law typically allows in a community.

The concentration comes with a geographic imbalance. Seven out of every 10 retailers licensed for off-sale beer, wine and liquor sales (for consumption off the store premises) are south of the Shaw Avenue commercial corridor, often cited as the economic dividing line between north and south Fresno, and nearly eight out of 10 bars or nightclubs in the city are south of Shaw.

By contrast, more than 70 percent of sit-down restaurants with licenses for a full bar – beer, wine and liquor – are in more affluent and fast-growing north Fresno.

“Well, those are the respectable drinkers” in north Fresno, said Pastor Elias “Eli” Loera, who runs the Christian Temple Assembly of God Church on Cedar Avenue just north of Belmont Avenue. And while he says it with a smile, he’s not entirely joking.

Loera’s church is in one of the poorest areas of the city. Within about a mile of his church, there are a half dozen public schools – and about 40 convenience stores, family markets, mini marts, liquor stores and chain drugstores licensed to sell beer, wine or liquor.

“You’ve got kids walking to school who see the drunk winos, they see it glamorized on TV, they see billboards with their soccer stars advertising it, and then it’s so accessible,” Loera said. “Down here, I think kids or people get drunk or get high to disconnect from reality. Life sucks down here for them.”

For Loera and other pastors who urged the City Council on June 22 to ban marijuana businesses, the last thing they want to see in their neighborhoods – neighborhoods that are largely poor, populated by people of color, and already feeling the effects of alcohol- and drug-fueled violence and crime – was a proliferation of legal pot shops amid the plethora of liquor stores.

It was only two years ago that Men’s Health magazine ranked Fresno atop its list of the nation’s drunkest cities (an “honor” that the magazine also bestowed twice earlier in the decade). The magazine based the evaluation on factors including arrests for driving under the influence, DUI collisions, binge drinking, prevalence of liver disease and severity of DUI penalties. One thing it didn’t count, however, was the number of stores where people can buy alcohol, or where they are concentrated in the city.

Make no mistake: alcohol is a big business. Excise taxes paid on beer and wine by manufacturers, vintners and importers, and by wholesalers of distilled spirits, generated nearly $360 million in California in 2014-2015. The state Board of Equalization did not break down excise taxes by county. And that doesn’t count sales taxes generated for the state and its cities and counties at stores selling alcoholic beverages.

How much is too much?

The state has rules that govern how many alcohol licenses for selling beer, wine and distilled spirits can be granted in a community. A formula in the state’s Business and Professions Code says the number should be no more than one for every 1,250 residents. In Fresno, that would work out to 416 off-sale licensees.

Fresno, however, had 468 licensees – or 52 more than specified by the formula in the law – as of mid-2016 to serve the 522,053 inhabitants of California’s fifth largest city.

That amounts to about 9.2 beer, wine or liquor stores per 10,000 Fresno residents. That’s more than the statewide average, more than neighboring Clovis, more than any of the rest of the state’s 10 biggest cities, and about the same ratio as all of Fresno County.

Of those retailers, 138 are either along or north of Shaw Avenue; 330 are south of Shaw. Even Loera was surprised to learn that there are more than three dozen within a mile of his church. “It’s that many? I knew it was a lot, but I didn’t know it was that many,” he said.

There are many factors besides the formula that go into determining whether the agency will issue licenses over that concentration. The law, for example, lets applicants show “that public convenience or necessity would be served” by issuing the license, depending on crime rates in the area where the store would be. Other provisions allow the state to calculate the ratio of licenses to the population by census tract rather than citywide. Local city councils and county boards of supervisors can also offer their own assessments of public convenience or necessity for an off-sale license application and support or object to the license.

The state said it’s not unusual for some areas to have more liquor licenses “when there are business districts or a high concentration of businesses,” said John Carr, a spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “Once public convenience or necessity is established, then ratios may be higher than the state-established ratios.”

That doesn’t necessarily explain why, in the seven census tracts surrounding Loera’s church, the ratio of off-sale licensees is one for every 890 residents – well in excess of the 1-to-1,250 ratio.

A few miles north on Cedar Avenue, in the eight census tracts surrounding the People’s Church at Herndon Avenue, the concentration is much lower: 20 off-sale licensees, or a ratio of 1 licensee for every 1,875 residents.

“I have pastor buddies in north Fresno who say, ‘Fresno is the best city in the world,’ ” Loera said. “They get up in the morning  ride their bike to River Park where the floor outside is tile and do their daily devotionals at Starbucks. Then they get back on their bike, ride through Woodward Park and go back to their 3,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage. Yes, Fresno’s beautiful.”

“But I come here in the morning and have to clean up feces, urine and vomit on a regular basis, twice a week and maybe more often,” he added. “I have to pick up tons of bottles and trash. If I don’t do it, my church looks dilapidated and it adds to the dilapidation of the neighborhood.”

Pastor Jymme Foote, who leads the Breaking Free Revival Center near Millbrook and Shields avenues, described beer/wine/liquor stores as one of several “predatory” factors, along with payday- and title-loan businesses, street drugs and easy availability of alcohol, that afflict lower-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

While there’s not a liquor store within eyesight of Foote’s church in a modest central Fresno neighborhood, there are nearly 30 stores selling beer, wine and liquor within a mile. In addition to grocery stores that sell alcohol, “there’s gas stations, convenience stores, liquor stores, and they all proliferate,” Foote said.

“We’ve had almost a century of legalized drinking post-Prohibition,” Foote added. “There are a lot of arguments pro and con, we’ve all grown up with it, and we reap the benefits and the dangers – underage drinking, DUIs, car accidents and everything that goes with it.”

While Fresno’s concentration of beer/wine/liquor stores is greater than other big California cities and the state average, the city is experiencing a marked reduction in DUI arrests, one of the factors cited by Men’s Health in its “drunkest cities” rankings.

In 2015, the Fresno Police Department made almost 2,800 arrests for drunken driving. In 2016, that was down to 1,594 arrests. Through the first six months of 2017, 748 DUI arrests were reported – slightly behind last year’s pace.

In addition to DUI enforcement with saturation patrols and checkpoints, Fresno police and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control are also keeping an eye on sales of alcohol to underage drinkers. In 2016, ABC filed 18 accusations against licensees in Fresno for serving or selling alcohol to minors – all but two of them were off-sale beer/wine/liquor stores.

“Sales of alcoholic beverages to minors and furnishing alcohol to minors remain among the top alcohol-related concerns of the community and law enforcement,” police Chief Jerry Dyer and Deputy Chief Andy Hall said in a staff report to the Fresno City Council on July 20. “Undercover operations have shown that licensees continue to sell alcohol to minors and adults occasionally purchase alcoholic beverages for minors in violation of the law.”

Possible solutions?

Police acknowledged the city’s overabundance of liquor stores. They cite the concentration in applications seeking state law-enforcement grants. But opinions vary on what course of action, if any, should be taken.

“I wish they would stop selling after a certain hour, or not be allowed to sell until a certain hour,” said Loera, the Christian Temple pastor. “Why not say, ‘You can’t sell alcohol before, say, 10 a.m.’?”

Loera also said he’d like to see a crackdown on public intoxication, particularly the visibility of passed-out drunks as children walk to or from school in his southeast neighborhood. He said there are frequently intoxicated people languishing in the alley between businesses along Belmont Avenue and the church and surrounding neighborhood.

Loera and Foote also said regulation of beer company advertising is needed to blunt the appeal. “I don’t want to say they’re glamorizing alcohol, but they’re sponsoring soccer leagues, they’re sponsoring concerts,” Loera said. “The billboards around here, they’re awesome.  The kids are bombarded with this; the alcoholics are bombarded with this,” he added, referring to finely-tuned messages in English and Spanish featuring famous Latino sports stars and music artists.

Foote agreed. “The answer has to be a society that regulates and controls and never glamorizes, whether it’s hard liquor or beer,” he said. “It’s just out there for everyone to see on TV.”

But, Foote adds, “If you show a bunch of guys in wheelchairs, brown-bagging it in the alley, or homeless people on the beach – and you show that during football games, baseball games – I guarantee that will take some of the glamor off of it.”

Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld, whose northeast Fresno district has the fewest beer/wine/liquor stores of any of the seven City Council districts, said zoning laws that govern where new liquor retailers can go are the most effective regulation that the city has available. “If you put restrictions on where they can operate, they can’t operate there,” he said.

“It’s not that every business that sells liquor is bad,” he added. “But we need to make sure we don’t have businesses that create adverse impacts on the quality of life in neighborhoods.”

In addition to northeast Fresno being more affluent than lower-income neighborhoods to the south, Bredefeld said he believes northeast neighborhoods are better organized politically and generate more public comments to the state over license applications.

“They’re more aware, and we work to make them more aware, when these kinds of businesses may come in and have an adverse effect on the neighborhood,” he said. “I feel the same way about southern parts of the city; poorer areas should not have these businesses that affect their quality of life.”

Carr, the ABC spokesman, said the department forwards any application to sell alcoholic beverages to the local government agency – a city or county – “so they have the opportunity to weigh in and ensure (that a) licensed premises would follow local zoning laws.” Cities and counties can object to issuing a license, in addition to applying conditions in their zoning rules for where off-sale stores can and cannot go.

Mayor Lee Brand said his concern over the imbalance in liquor retailer concentrations dates to his time on the Fresno Planning Commission starting in the early 2000s. “If you look at the numbers, you could say there’s an overabundance everywhere,” he said. But the commission can only apply the zoning laws that the city has on the books. Now Brand’s goal, working with City Councilman Oliver Baines representing southwest Fresno, is to tighten Fresno’s zoning ordinances to ensure greater scrutiny over applications for liquor licenses.

“The obvious answer is when we have a saturated area, we have to draw the line,” Brand said of permit applications. “We can’t keep proliferating liquor licenses.”

He said the city may also contest more applications to the state for the transfer of liquor licenses when businesses change owners. “I believe the concentration has got to be a factor we look at, and in some cases we’ll say no,” he said.

Brand also acknowledged that north Fresno has more large grocery stores licensed to sell alcohol, while more south Fresno licensees are convenience stores or corner liquor stores. He suggested limiting single-bottle beer sales as a possible way to reduce public intoxication.

“When people go to a supermarket, they’ll buy a case or two and take it home,” Brand observed. “When they go to a local convenience store and buy one bottle, they’re going outside to drink it. That’s when you see folks out along the street drinking with a brown paper bag.”

Foote – who said his grandfather was a bootlegger and gin runner who did jail time for his efforts – said that no matter the form of regulation, there will remain a demand for alcohol among the public. “Alcohol is legal and it’s legitimized,” he said. “People are going to buy alcohol, and if it’s illegal, they’re going to make it and drink it.”

“It has to come from people saying, ‘The price we pay is higher than the tax income, all that revenue that comes from it,’ ” Foote added. “Are we that kind of society? It used to be that we were. I’m not sure we are now.”

Brew, wine and booze in Fresno

An analysis of where alcohol retailers are located relative to the Shaw Avenue commercial corridor, often characterized as an economic boundary between higher-income north Fresno and lower-income south Fresno.

Type of business

Total licenses

North of Shaw

South of Shaw

Off-sale retail stores (beer/wine, beer/wine/liquor)

468

138

330

On-sale, restaurant with full bar

189

133

56

On-sale, bar/tavern beer

23

5

18

On-sale, restaurant with beer/wine

230

114

116

On-sale, bars/nightclubs, beer/wine or beer/wine/liquor

60

13

47

Source: California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

DUI arrests in Fresno

The number of DUI arrests made by the Fresno Police Department in 2016 and the first half of 2017 is well below where it was in past years.

Year

DUI arrests

2017 (through June 30)

748

2016

1,594

2015

2,784

2014

2,862

2013

2,693

2012

3,262

2011

2,878

2010

2,740

2009

3,268

2008

3,278

2007

3,211

Source: Fresno Police Department

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