‘Drunkest city in America’ no more. Fresno passes liquor license reforms

Where are Fresno’s liquor stores?

70 percent of sit-down restaurants licensed for a full bar in Fresno are located north of Shaw Avenue, but 70 percent of liquor stores are located south of Shaw.
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70 percent of sit-down restaurants licensed for a full bar in Fresno are located north of Shaw Avenue, but 70 percent of liquor stores are located south of Shaw.

Student advocates and convenience store owners united this week in their support at a special Fresno City Council meeting on Wednesday to reform the city’s policies on liquor licenses and store operations.

The council unanimously passed the Safe Neighborhood Market Ordinance, which will cap the number of liquor licenses and require new store owners to buy existing licenses and retire them in an effort to reduce saturation in the southern half of the city. The ordinance also outlines a new inspection program to operate under the city attorney’s office to enforce rules about signage and sales of single-container alcohol beverages.

“This is the beginning of a policy that will gradually over time reverse a mistake that the city of Fresno is 100 percent responsible for,” said Councilmember Luis Chavez, who represents southeast Fresno. “We did not create this situation overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight.”

The city of Fresno in 1993 grandfathered in existing liquor licenses, and until 2003 approved every liquor license for the reason of convenience or job creation. The result was a higher rate of licenses in the southern parts of the city than recommended by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Businesses and neighbors also sued the city when new projects were approved.

Members of the regional American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association at Wednesday’s meeting said they support the proposal as long as it doesn’t impose additional burdensome fines on store owners.

“We know what the issues are, and we’re willing to work with the city,” said Andy Chhikara, the president of APCA.

Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, who represents northeast Fresno, said there’s no denying the saturation of stores in the southern part of the city. But he pointed out that current laws for signage aren’t currently being enforced by code enforcement.

“I don’t want to leave here thinking we’ve enacted a piece of legislation and not one thing is going to change,” he said.

Bredefeld also took exception with councilmembers rallying support for the ordinance by referencing Fresno’s “Drunkest City in America” title. He said convenience store owners don’t contribute to that problem.

At the beginning of the meeting, Councilmember Miguel Arias, who represents downtown and southwest Fresno, noted the health indicators used by Men’s Health Magazine to name Fresno as the nation’s drunkest city. Those indicators included the number of deaths from liver disease, DUIs and binge-drinking incidents. He said he hopes the ordinance will help eliminate that designation.

Students participating in Youth Leadership Institute’s Friday Night Live programs for years collected data on youth alcohol consumption and the saturation of liquor stores. Their data and advocacy helped inform and mold the ordinance, which also creates a 1,000-foot buffer from license holders and parks and schools.

Wednesday’s action by the council initiates environmental review necessary to amend the city’s municipal code.

Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.