** As originally published in The Coast News on Aug. 15, 2014.
By Ray Pearson
Nobody would fault the need to improve a blighted shopping center with more commerce. However, when that commerce includes alcohol sales in a high-crime neighborhood, then leaders must take a step back and assess the best course for the community and public safety.
One of the most effective approaches for reducing excessive drinking and its many health and social consequences is to limit the physical availability of alcohol. Numerous studies confirm that neighborhoods with dense concentration of alcohol outlets experience higher rates of alcohol consumption, binge drinking, violence, and underage drinking. Due to all those concerns, Dollar General recently lost its bid to sell beer and wine in a 10-year-old shopping center on North Santa Fe Avenue in Vista’s Townsite neighborhood.
One of the most effective approaches for reducing excessive drinking and its many health and social consequences is to limit the physical availability of alcohol.
Wisely, the Vista Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to the business provided it does not sell alcohol; an action many hope repeats when a Family Dollar proposing to sell alcohol on East Vista Way comes before the Planning Commission this month. Such land use policies balance business needs with the health and safety needs of the community.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reported that the Townsite store has a far higher crime rate than the citywide average, according to the city staff report. In addition, eight locations surrounding the Dollar General project already sell alcohol. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “Alcohol and Crime” report notes a statistical correlation between establishments that sell alcohol and an increase in crime.
Based on these important findings, the city passed on the beer and wine sales because of the “potential to increase crime” which “would not be in harmony with other commercial and residential uses located in the surrounding area.” We support the City’s efforts to be prudent with its land use policy that is supportive of the Responsible Retailer Programs model, which helps guide alcohol retail stores with business practices that maintain the overall health and safety of a community while achieving their business plan.
Still, discount stores nationwide have been pushing for alcohol sales in recent years. Business Week reported recently that Family Dollar tested alcohol sales in about 200 of its stores this summer, with results strong enough to expand the beer and wine sales nationwide. In 2010, Dollar Tree started selling tobacco and alcohol. According to Forbes, it now sells alcohol products at more than 4,000 of its 10,000 stores to compete with Walmart.
Frustration over the market saturation of Family Dollar stores, and the like, are causing some backlash. Recently, an Atlanta neighborhood fought an alcohol sales license for a store feeling it would compromise public safety in an area already flooded with liquor.
That community’s instincts are well founded. A study conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that neighborhoods where bars, restaurants and other stores that sell alcohol are close together “suffer more frequent incidences of violence.” In order to temper such problems, the Institute recommends many of the governmental land use policy regulations employed by the City of Vista.
Furthermore, Vista’s staff recommendation to deny alcohol sales also supports Vista’s General Plan which was updated in 2012, and included a new section, the Healthy Vista Element that aims for “improving public health and promoting healthier residents by taking a leadership role in making community health and wellness priorities.”
Staff’s conclusion is not a criticism of any one particular business operation, but an acknowledgment that increasing alcohol availability impacts the entire community. Reducing the number of commercial sale points helps keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Alcohol remains the most abused drug by young people, and is associated with the leading causes of death for teens and young adults – motor vehicle crashes, homicides, and suicides. Local governments play a key role in reducing the permits that allow alcohol sales at places where young people shop.
Moreover, as Vista tries to keep its alcohol licensing in check, particularly in high-crime areas, they aggressively seek out higher-end businesses to combat crime with the public’s safety in mind. We applaud the City of Vista for balancing retail and tax revenue needs with impacts to neighborhoods, young people and crime rates.
Ray Pearson is the president of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition.