In most places in California, there’s a liquor store for about every 2,500 people. But in the city of Fresno? There's one liquor store for every thousand residents. Nearly half of the liquor stores selling alcohol are in violation of city or state laws, according to a recent investigation from the city. While residents have complained about the high concentration of liquor stores for years, some council members are finally taking a stand.
Like Miguel Arias who represents District 3. Standing in his office, he opens up a plastic bag that’s been sitting on his desk.
“These are King Cobras malt liquor. Twenty-four ounces being sold for a price cheaper than a bottle of water,” Arias says. The cans are 89 cents each; a bottle of water was $1.30 at the same store.
He bought them at a convenience store near a school in his district, which includes southwest Fresno.
Last month, the city conducted an investigation on about half of the city’s liquor stores.
“Of the 460 current license holders, we inspected 204. Ninety-six percent of them failed the inspection,” says Arias.
There were over 900 violations: some stores lacked signs about the legal drinking age, and some had too many ads covering their windows. Arias says that while his staff didn’t conduct the city-wide inspection, they went to a liquor store on their own; a 21-year-old staff member didn’t even get carded.
“Unfortunately for our city, for about 30 years we’ve been saying that any liquor store is a job creator, and therefore we should approve it," Arias says. He says this is one reason why the number of liquor licenses to sell alcohol for off-site consumption are more than double the state’s average. “In my neighborhood, it's one for every 500 residents. I literally have 37 liquor stores with a mile radius of our high schools,” he says.
To address the oversaturation and lack of compliance, Arias and councilmembers Nelson Esparza and Luis Chavez are cosponsoring a resolution. It would call for regular inspections in existing stores, and more stringent requirements for developers who want to build a store with a liquor license for off-site consumption.
They’re calling it "The Responsible Neighborhood Market Ordinance."
Here’s how it might work: If someone wants to open a new liquor store, they would have to get their license from an existing store within the city. The idea is that licenses would be purchased from highly concentrated areas first. Arias says this a better option than forcing closures. “This ensures that existing businesses don't get automatically shut down when they've been doing their work and operating in good standing,”
Esther Delahey, a Fresno resident, is skeptical. “If the city right now enforced everything that they currently had on the books, then we wouldn't be in the situation we're in.”
Delahey is the executive director of the Lowell Community Development Corporation.
Last year, the Lowell CDC sued the City of Fresno for approving the development of a Johnny Quik at Van Ness and Belmont. It’s in construction, even while the lawsuit is ongoing. Delahey lives nearby, in the Lowell neighborhood, so she got a notice about it when the permit for the store was up for a vote. She tried to advocate against it, citing the city’s own municipal code: Liquor stores should not be located too close to public parks or drug treatment centers, which this one is. The Johnny Quik is also blocks away from three other liquor stores.
All three are within a few blocks of each other on Belmont Avenue, near Van Ness Avenue in Fresno.
Kiel Lopez-Schmidt is familiar with the Johnny Quik development; he also opposed the project’s liquor license when he was on the Tower District design review committee. He agrees with Arias that city councils of the past have prioritized liquor stores and their promise of jobs in disenfranchised areas. Lopez-Schmidt says that these decisions have been made at the expense of the surrounding neighborhoods.
He also doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Councilmember Esmeralda Soria’s campaign received a $4,400 donation from the developer of Johnny Quik, Beal Developments, days after its permit was approved last year.
“With this situation, the developers that have more political influence, the ones that are more capitalized and have the ability to donate to city council campaigns, they’re the ones that are gonna get continued approval,” Lopez-Schmidt says.
Soria did not respond to a request for comment regarding the campaign donation and her vote in favor of the permit. But there was only one council member who did oppose it: the now-termed out Clint Olivier.
Lopez-Schmidt likes the proposed council resolution from Arias, Esparza, and Chavez.
“It’s, you know, past time we do that,” he says. “Each of these projects has been reviewed at an incremental level, so this one by one of looking at the merits of one liquor store, then another, we've continued to concentrate liquor stores.”
Esther Delahey also applauds the council members for proposing the resolution, but she’s only cautiously optimistic.
“It really depends on the budget that comes in afterwards,” says Delahey. “If it isn’t enforced, or there isn’t the budget to enforce it, then again it's another really well intentioned law, with no backing.”
The resolution was supposed to be heard at the City Council Meeting last week, but small business owners urged the council to postpone the vote. They said that they wanted more time to “review the policy.” It’s now set to be heard at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon instead.