Liquor Commission sets up big-time battle over Whiteclay beer sales

Liquor Commission sets up big-time battle over Whiteclay beer sales

Prepare for a serious showdown over beer sales in the troubled town of Whiteclay.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission on Tuesday ordered all four beer stores in the village to reapply if they want to retain their liquor licenses after this year.

It's the first time in decades those stores will be forced by state regulators to justify selling millions of cans of beer on the doorstep of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

Activists pushing to stop beer sales in Whiteclay applauded Tuesday's action.

"Hallelujah," whispered Nancy Carlson of Lincoln as the Liquor Commission made its decision.

"It has been a long time coming," said Winnebago activist Frank LaMere. "But now the work begins."

All four liquor licenses were up for automatic renewal next year. By requiring the stores to complete "long-form" applications instead, Tuesday's decision sets a higher bar for Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn to remain in the unincorporated village with about a dozen permanent residents, where the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer were sold last year alone.

Beer store owners will have to demonstrate they meet several requirements for liquor licenses under state law, including the presence of adequate law enforcement. They might also be called to testify before the Liquor Commission at a formal hearing early next year.

The owners didn't attend Tuesday's meeting. Some learned of the decision from phone calls with reporters.

Steve Sanford, co-owner of D&S Pioneer Service, called the move "rather interesting" and said he needed to gather more details before commenting further.

"I've just got a legitimate business to run here at this point," he said.

Owners of Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor and Jumping Eagle Inn either declined to comment or couldn't be reached.

The Liquor Commission's order came on a 3-0 vote.

Chairman Bob Batt said the move was triggered by comments last month from a Sheridan County commissioner who told members of a legislative committee that the northwest Nebraska county "absolutely" does not have adequate law enforcement for proper policing in Whiteclay.

"We really need help with law enforcement," Jack Andersen said during an Oct. 11 hearing at the Capitol.

Beer sales in Whiteclay have been blamed for a wide range of social ills in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation: alcoholism and bootlegging are rampant despite the liquor ban, hundreds of children are born with fetal alcohol disorders and Whiteclay itself is a hub for vagrants and violence.

Activists have complained about the problems for years but lacked legal standing to challenge the liquor licenses because they aren't from Sheridan County, Batt said.

Andersen's comments carried more legal weight because they came from a local official, Batt said.

"We have a lot of momentum now, and we've got to keep that momentum going," said Dennis Carlson, another activist.

Even if the liquor licenses are denied, people pushing for reform in Whiteclay have said more must be done to address the problems surrounding alcoholism on Pine Ridge.

Batt himself acknowledged the breadth of the issue.

"Whiteclay is a symptom," he said. "The root cause is, alcohol is in the culture. It's so embedded."

John Maisch