Edmonton councillors abandon idea of dropping minimum distances for downtown liquor stores

A photo taken at an Edmonton City Council meeting on Jan. 22, 2019. Global News

Downtown Edmonton, and the Oliver community immediately to the west of it, won’t be getting more liquor stores.

On Tuesday, city council’s urban planning committee abandoned an idea to get rid of the minimum distances between liquor stores, which would have allowed more to come into the market.

The original notion was endorsed by Councillor Scott McKeen.

“I guess I lost some of my confidence in that,” McKeen conceded to reporters on his thought that increased competition would be enough to force some of the bad-actor vendors out of business in an area mapped out from 121 Street in the west, to 97 Street downtown, bordered mainly by Jasper and 104 avenues.

“There’s not going to be anything imminent on this,” McKeen said of his efforts to crack down on low-cost, low-margin, and low-effort stores that he said put out “cheap ripple” and individual beers that he claimed are sold to disadvantaged individuals.

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“You wouldn’t have to be a quantum physicist to walk by some of these stores and go, ‘That looks kind of sketchy.'”

READ MORE: Minimum distance between downtown Edmonton liquor stores to be eliminated

The committee backed away from the plan, which was in response to a single zoning change in the Ice District late last year. At that time, there was pushback from the industry association and individual businesses in the area.

Shanu Mohamedali, who runs a dermatology clinic on Jasper Avenue at 115 Street, said in the last six months he’s had four instances of someone being inebriated and bothering his clients, who were confronted in his business.

“On a few of those occasions, we’ve had to call the police,” he said. “In one specific occasion, we’ve had to have the police remove somebody from our waiting room.”

James Burns, the vice-chairman and CEO at Alcanna, which is the largest operator of liquor stores in Edmonton, said overpopulation of the area with retailers is not a problem.

“It’s widely available, so I think it’s a red herring argument,” he told reporters. “There’s lots of alcohol. Anyone can get it anytime they want, anywhere they want [and] very close together.”

Ivonne Martinez of the Alberta Liquor Store Association said increased competition will not change the landscape.

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“We work with police services [and] Alberta Health Services, and what they told us was basically, ‘If you have more liquor stores, then you have problems with people at risk, people who have issues with substance abuse,’ and the list goes on and on.”

READ MORE: Minimum distance booze rule dropped in downtown Edmonton at request of Katz Group

Martinez will now work with McKeen and others to find ways to have lower-end retailers clean up their act.

“I know we continue to work with AGLC to see how our association can assist them in bringing some of these stores to an area that I would be, as a woman, be comfortable walking into,” she said.

Councillor Aaron Paquette was vocal about keeping the status quo during the meeting.

“It makes me wonder, ‘What are we trying to solve here? What is the problem specifically that we’re trying to solve?’ he said. “Because that’s the root of the question, isn’t it? And that is the question. Why are we even here today? Is it because there’s a massive demand from the public that we need more liquor stores? No.”

The city will continue work on revamping its zoning bylaw, and McKeen said this minimum distance requirement at some point will be discussed as part of that. But getting troubled stores to clean up their act is something McKeen said is not entirely up to the city.

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“Their behaviour is more under the auspices of the AGLC, frustratingly.”

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