By Chris Bowling, Originally printed in the Omaha Star
The overcast February day melted into cold night as hours passed inside the Omaha City Council’s Tuesday meeting. Some of the community members in attendance shift in their seats, others prop their elbows to hold their heads up, but all take notice when Cindy Gains grips the podium. As lifelong North Omaha resident the mother of three and stares down the City Council, she makes clear how she feels about the possibility of a new alcohol distributor in her community.
“Vote no,” said the lifelong North Omaha resident. “You understand? No. Otherwise I’ll be down here every single day.”
After hearing more than an hour of charged public opposition, the Omaha City Council voted unanimously on Feb. 4 not to recommend a proposed liquor license at a North Omaha Family Dollar at 1500 North 24th St.
Council members expressed both legal opposition and moral disdain with the proposed location of the Class B license, which would allow for the sale of six-packs and cases of beer.
“When you see the neighborhood rise up to shield itself, and all the efforts they’re taking after decades and decades of decay, they’re just now rising from the ashes,” Council President Chris Jerram said. “I don’t see what [Family Dollar] is proposing at this time, it doesn’t fit in.”
This Family Dollar is across the street from Blackburn High School and down the block from Kellom Elementary as well as in the vicinity of churches and a growing business improvement district. In the nearly two hours of testimony, business owners, church leaders and lifelong community members testified that beer sales would detract from years of hard-earned progress in the community. Jerram said voting “No” was as simple as the Sesame Street rule.
“One of these things does not belong,” he said.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission will have the final say on this Family Dollar’s potential beer sales as well as another Family Dollar at 3552 Leavenworth St. which the council opposed on a 5-2 vote. However community opposers said they’ll travel to Lincoln to testify in front of the three-person commission, already shouting back and forth in the legislative chamber to arrange carpools.
That’s important for the Liquor Control Commission to hear because it speaks louder than the City Council’s vote.
“They take you seriously and they listen,” said Council Member Aimee Melton. “And that’s what it’s going to take.”
Louis Masters spoke in support of the resolution to support a liquor license. Family Dollar’s district manager to oversee liquor license implementation in Nebraska said adding beer to these stores is about customer demand and filling gaps in those neighborhoods.
“A lot of our customers walk to our locations so they really don’t have the option of going anywhere to buy packaged liquor,” he said, speaking about the Leavenworth location which is down the street from a Kwik Shop gas station as well as bars like Alderman’s and The Down Under Lounge. Similarly on N. 24th Street, Masters said customers would have to walk to Ames or Cumming streets for alcohol.
In total 18 community members testified against the store. They included Carmen Tapio who owns North End Teleservices, a telecommunications business that started in 2015 with zero employees and now has 120 people, church leaders who quoted scripture and elicited amens from the audience and many 24th street residents.
Terence Haynes, a community advocate and lifelong resident, said his childhood home faced several liquor stores and so he’s long witnessed alcoholism’s stranglehold on the community.
“I had to deal with that and I watched it my entire life from my bedroom window,” he said.
Tapio, whose business is in the same strip mall as Family Dollar, said the business is not doing enough already to curb illicit activity outside its store.Littering, public intoxication, assault and other issues are common already, she said, and adding alcohol would only make things worse.
“It would be a self inflicted wound that only adds to the immense challenges the community is trying to overcome,” she said.
William King, owner of radio state 95.7 The Boss which is located blocks from the Family Dollar, said his work as a probation officer showed him how alcohol and other substances have held his community back. North Omaha shouldn’t have another alcohol distributor, he said, and he’d use his voice on the radio to make sure the community’s in line about what is good neighborhood stewardship and what’s not.
“We’re in the mode right now of rehabilitating our community,” King said. “And we don’t need interference from anyone outside trying to continue the perpetuation of manipulating people who don’t have a voice.”
The issue struck a particular chord in the community because of longstanding opposition to Family Dollars. Councilman Ben Gray who represents District 2 and northeast Omaha, said every Family Dollar he’s been to in his area is undermanaged, unclean and unsupportive of growth in the community.
“I don’t think a single person in the community would miss one of those Family Dollars,” he said.
Other council members questioned the ethics of choosing these two locations among the many Omaha Family Dollars as needing liquor licenses, saying they seem to be targeting vulnerable communities.
“They’re in there to take the money,” said Gray. “That’s all they want to do.”
After nearly two hours of testimony, which rivaled action earlier in the day on the mayor’s proposed property tax levy which would add $200 million over six years to street maintenance starting in 2022, city council members opposed the license unanimously.
Quiet applause and cheers filled the room as many quickly picked up their coats and bags. The light of the dreary February day had faded as they streamed out into the cold night. Back in the legislative chamber, Gray said tonight signaled just how far the North Omaha community has come. Eight years ago, this probably would have passed, he said. But, because of community organizing, acts like the good neighbor ordinance and $33.5 million dollar nonprofit and public investments in the Siena Francis House, ownership in the community is stronger.
Now people feel confident coming before the city council, speaking plainly and with authority about what’s right and wrong for their community, many bringing thick packets of documentation that impressed city council members. For Gray, it’s not surprising, though.
There’s a larger plan for North Omaha at work. Tuesday’s hearing just displayed the force turning its wheels.
“We got a plan in place to address homelessness, we got facilities built, we have outreach people that are going out and getting people,” Gray said. “So are we going to turn around and put a beer place there? No man. That just doesn’t make sense.”