By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s office and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is attempting to decrease the amount of public drinking in downtown Portland by convincing grocery store owners to voluntarily not carry certain kinds of alcoholic beverages.
But all the initiative is resulting in so far is fury from grocery store owners, collective agreement that it is not a real solution, with only a fraction of them agreeing to comply.
“VibrantPDX,” as the initiative is called, is a voluntary agreement between grocery stores and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement not to sell alcoholic beverages with high-alcohol content. That includes malt liquor and beer with names such as Old English 800, Steel Reserve, Milwaukie’s Best Ice and Camo Malt Liquor.
All grocery stores east and north of I-405, south of Lovejoy Avenue, and west of the Willamette River have been asked to sign the agreement. There are 67 grocery stores within those limits.
The purpose of the program is to decrease what proponents call “street drinking,” or drinking in public. It is illegal in Portland, and offenders are given a citation, which does not come with fines or other types of punishment.
The Portland Police Bureau gave 1,740 citations for public drinking in downtown Portland in 2009. That accounts for 53 percent of all public drinking in the city. Twenty-five percent of all individuals being held in detox came from the downtown area.
Steve Mattsson, the manager of Hooper Detox’s sobering station for intoxicated individuals, says the station has 12,000 admissions a year. Fifty percent of those people are ones that will return, Mattsson says, “on a repeated basis.” In his mind, there is no doubt that there is a street drinking problem.
“Over the last two years, one of the most frequent complaints we get were problems around street drinking,” says Mark Friedman, a Central Precinct officer.
“It is a compelling problem in a small area,” says Theresa Marchetti, ONI’s liquor license specialist. She emphasized that it is a location and not store-based problem. “(And) it’s not a problem we can really ignore.”
Sources for this story largely pointed to homeless people when describing who were the population of street drinkers. But Mike Boyer, a crime prevention specialist in the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says another group of concern are teenagers and people in their 20s who are drinking in public while on their way to shows, house parties and other social outings. Another population of street drinkers, Marchetti says, are youths that are known by the police to favor boxed wine.
Proponents of the alcohol ban say that street drinking leads to other livability issues, such as aggressive panhandling, public urination and defecation and an increase in littering.
The Downtown Neighborhood Association, Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association, Old Town Chinatown Business Association, Downtown Retail Council, Travel Portland, and the social service agency Central City Concern (which was founded in 1979 to specifically provide services for people known as “public inebriates” at that time) support the initiative.
“We would like to see a limit on the accessibility of certain types of alcohol that are more amenable to chronic alcoholism that people are dying from,” says Ed Blackburn, Central City Concern’s executive director. “I can’t think of a good reason to keep these high level alcoholic beverages available.”
“These high-alcohol volume drinks are pretty marketed to our types of clients,” Mattsson says.
In exchange for entering into the agreement, Marchetti told store owners that they would be recognized by Commissioner Fritz for being socially responsible and would have their store logos prominently displayed on her website.
Three public meetings with store owners were held on Feb. 4 and 18, and March 4. The meetings, Marchetti says, were designed to solicit feedback from store owners about the agreement. “This is meant to be a collaborative effort,” Marchetti says.
But from the moment the public process got out of the gate, there were problems.
Economics 101, microbrews, and free will
The first meeting, on Feb. 4, was attended by approximately 20 store owners. All expressed concern with the agreement as it had been drafted by Marchetti and ONI.
The agreement would have banned all 16 ounce and 24 ounce containers, either sold individually or in six-packs, and all beer with an alcohol content over 5.75 percent per ounce. That would have included all beers from Old English 800 to beers made by local, popular breweries.
Marchetti says the agreement’s original stipulations were based on research that had been conducted on other municipalities that had created similar programs, such as Seattle’s. “We started with what we thought was going to be the most effective to deal with the issue,” she says.
Store owners pushed back when it came to 16 ounce singles and six-packs, saying that it is one of the most popular products sold at the stores.
Street Roots interview nine storeowners for this article. Three requested anonymity because they feared political backlash, from the city and the OLCC. For this article, they will be referred to as Storeowner #1, Storeowner #2, and Storeowner #3.
Owners expressed concern about the impact the agreement, as it had been drafted at the first meeting, would impact their sales. “In this economy, I can’t believe that they’re trying to do something like this when so many small businesses are struggling,” Storeowner #3 says.
Boyer recognizes that concern, and says that economic considerations have stopped some owners from signing the agreement. “It’s a tough pitch to make in a rough economy,” he says.
Doug Peterson, the owner of Peterson’s Convenience Stores, says that 10 percent of his store’s sales are in beer sales. One storeowner said his sales could drop by as much as 20 percent. Chris Girard, the owner of Plaid Pantry, is skeptical sales would be impacted, based upon his store’s experience in Seattle.
Boyer argued during the first meeting that the grocery stores would ultimately become more profitable because stores would gain customers who in the past had been unwilling to shop at those stores.
Storeowners argued that the reason their sales would be so negatively impacted is that very few of their customers are street drinkers. “I’m not catering to these people,” Peterson says, who refers to the majority of his customers as “middle America” people.
One owner used the term “smorgasbord” to describe his clientele. During the first public meeting, it was expressed loud and clear that condo owners, PSU students, culinary students, tourists, people on their way home from work, middle income and even higher income people represent the majority of the people doing business at grocery stores.
“We have a lot of customers that prefer the lower cost beer without abusing it,” Girard says.
Girard’s point gets at a problem with the alcohol ban more basic and philosophical than impacted sales.
Some business owners feel like they are being told what to and what not to sell as it is. Many would only say off the record that the city is acting inappropriately when telling businesses what to do. The program, one business owner says, negatively impacts free enterprise, and limits an individual’s ability, one said, to exercise their free will.
“Let the consumer decide,” Peterson says.
Owners, especially Peterson, argued that much of the agreement unfairly penalized stores. “The problem is pretty much identified with cheap, high-alcohol content,” Peterson says. “The microbrews are not cheap. The prices are too high for street drinkers.”
As a result of the initial meetings, Oregon microbrews are now listed as an exception to the ban. Sixteen-ounce singles and six-packs were also listed as exceptions.
As a result of the changes made, Peterson says he probably will not have a problem signing the agreement. Girard would like a few more exceptions to be made so Plaid Pantry could continue carrying particular types of popular beer. As of press time, he was working with ONI to see whether those changes could be approved. If they are, he will sign on.
Marchetti says that the core data and statistics ONI used when crafting the ban agreement are not the citation reports from the Portland Police Bureau, but from Portland Patrol, Inc.
Portland Patrol, Inc., a private security firm that contracts with the Portland Business Alliance to patrol downtown Portland, conducted a targeted mission between May 21 and June 17 of last year to make contact with people drinking in public to find out what kind of alcohol they were drinking, where they were drinking it, and what size of container it was in. Portland Patrol officers made 289 contacts during that time.
Portland Patrol, Inc. would not make the records available to Street Roots (the records are not public). Nor was the data made available during any of the three meetings.
But a spreadsheet of compiled data provided by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement shows that the common containers were 16 and 24 ounce bottles cans of beer with an alcohol content of 5.9 percent per ounce. (For comparison, Deschutes Brewery’s Mirror Pond Pale Ale is 4.53 percent alcohol per ounce.)
Many storeowners said they were suspicious of the data at the Feb. 4 meeting. What parts of downtown were the street drinkers found? What, exactly, did the statistics show? How was ONI making a connection between street drinking and the stores?
There are two reasons why the data would cause concern. First, Portland Patrol only patrols in downtown. Any street drinking that takes in inner Southeast Portland, for example, would not have been recorded or noticed by ONI.
The second reason is the timing of when Portland Patrol conducted their mission. The summer months in Portland, though glorious for much-awaited sunlight and farmer’s markets, are also the time when there is a noticeable influx of people and activity on the streets.
“I don’t think (the street drinking problem) is overwhelming,” Girard says. “I do think that the reason they are finding so many street drinkers in downtown Portland is that we have, through the (Portland Business Alliance), we have (Portland Patrol, Inc.),” Girard says.
Not so voluntary after all
Responses from all stores were expected by March 12. April 1 is the date set for the beginning of the alcohol ban. A review will take place in October, according to Marchetti, to review how well the program is working and if there were any “unintended consequences.”
As of March 17, only 12 out of 67 stores had signed the agreement.
Marchetti says she is not surprised more store owners have not signed up, because the final draft of the agreement was not available until late in the week of March 8. Marchetti and Boyer were conducting street outreach to each store the to make a last ditch effort to get stores to sign the agreement.
What success of the program depends on, Boyer says, is bigger stores in the downtown area, such as Safeway, Whole Foods, and Plaid Pantry signing onto the agreement. Small stores will feel compelled to sign on if there is a critical mass. “If they don’t take the lead and step forward, you’re not going to get 100 percent compliance,” Boyer says.
Marchetti is willing to up the ante if compliance isn’t met voluntarily.
The City Council can be petitioned to allow Marchetti to work with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) to declare downtown Portland an alcohol impact area. Doing so would create mandatory guidelines store owners would be required to follow regarding what types of alcohol they could and could not carry.
A similar string of events happened in Seattle. Seattle declared parts of its downtown area alcoholic impact areas in 2003 to respond to problems associated to street drinking. The program was, at first, voluntary. But businesses were not willing to voluntarily stop carrying particular types of alcohol because they were concerned “it was going to hit their bottom line,” says Kimberly Archie, the deputy director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods.
Archie says that as a result, “we weren’t seeing any improvement in chronic public inebriation.”
The city of Seattle petitioned the Washington State Liquor Control Board in 2006 to make the alcohol ban mandatory. Archie says there were no legal repercussions. Since then, statistics have shown a 21 percent decrease in admissions to detox centers, a 35 percent decrease in calls to the police, and a 61 percent decrease of drinking in parks.
Marchetti is hoping for similar results, voluntary or mandatory. An extensive public process is required before the OLCC can make a recommendation that the alcohol ban be manadatory. Marchetti says it would take at least a year, starting late this summer or early fall.
No real solutions
Almost everyone interviewed for this article thinks downtown Portland has a street drinking problem. But no one will stand behind the street drinking initiative as a solution to street drinking. At best, it will mitigate the problem.
“It makes it harder for them to get a lot of alcohol,” Blackburn says. “I would never suggest that it’s a cure to this type of alcoholism.”
“We don’t expect this to eliminate the problem,” Marchetti says. She does expect it to decrease.
Some think it will simply decrease because street drinking will move to other areas of the city. “There are at least four stores just on the other side of the 405,” Storeowner #3 says. “They can walk over there. What’s the difference? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
It is not possible, Marchetti says, to make the program citywide because “there are definite pockets of places that exhibit greater problems than other places. It’s not feasible.”
Spreading out the social services and low-income housing, self-policing stores, increasing fines and punishment for street drinking, and increasing funding for treatment were all ideas offered by storeowners.
Many store owners already make efforts to self-police who they will sell alcohol to, checking a person’s ID or asking for rent receipts given out by hotels to ensure that the customer has a place to take the alcohol back to. “We’ll sell them alcohol if they have a street address,” Peterson says.
“It’s easy to do,” Storeowner #1 says.
This storeowner also thought it would be beneficial to require all store clerks to take the same class the OLCC requires of serves at bars and restaurants. Part of what that class teaches is how to recognize people who are visibly intoxicated. Clerks who sell alcohol to such people, or to people who they know are chronic drinkers, should not have jobs at grocery stores, the storeowner thinks.
Zokoych says that street drinking, rather being an issue for businesses to deal with, is a behavioral and an enforcement issue. “You’re not going to stop the behavior by not selling the container,” he says.
Boyer and Marchetti said that there was no effort when the VibrantPDX initiative was being crafted to include a component that would increase the amount of alcohol treatment available to individuals, or create some sort of outreach or education program for individuals engaged in street drinking. “This is the start of the efforts,” Boyer says.
But is there an effort to partner with Multnomah County — which is the principal funder for alcohol treatment in the county—to increase spending or outreach for alcohol treatment?
“There is not a well-thought out plan at this point,” Boyer says.
Marchetti says that treatment was not considered along with the alcohol ban because “our expertise and understanding of the problem is more on the supply line.” Marchetti says she is also not sure if alcohol treatment is relevant. “I don’t think we could say that all of the street drinkers are alcoholics,” Marchetti says.
Archie says that as Seattle crafted its alcoholic impact areas, investing further funding in alcohol treatment was not considered. Yet she recognizes that Seattle’s policy is not “a total solution to the problem.”
Storeowner #2, along with a few other storeowners, said he would be willing to donate the amount of money they would lose in sales as a result of the alcohol ban—or at least a fraction of them — to social-service agencies that provide alcohol treatment. There is a precedent for businesses — at least business associations such as the Portland Business Alliance — taking their financial resources and putting them toward creating programs and policies that address social problems.
“In the long run, what solves the problem is providing services that help people get off the streets and support them in efforts to stop their drinking,” Blackburn says.
“I would say that every single of our clients want treatment,” Mattsson says. But the likelihood that they will actually enter a treatment program is slim. Ten people are discharged from Hooper each day. Only 10 treatment slots open up per month. That means that people who have the potential to successfully complete a treatment program are only cycling through detox, over and over again.
“It’s not the best way to treat these clients,” Mattsson says. “We have to expect we’re going to see them over again.”