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Corner liquor store: Neighborhood fixture or magnet for trouble?

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Throughout West Center City, a row house neighborhood near downtown Wilmington, liquor stores serve as gathering places for people to hang out, smoke cigarettes and sometimes drink a $1.25 can of beer or a travel-sized bottle of liquor. Customers are often young and middle-aged men, but non-drinkers stop in for a bag of chips or a bottle of water and children and families hang out nearby.

“You’re going to have people out front of liquor stores,” said Frank White, a West Center City resident, as he drank a Pepsi in front of Westside Liquors at Eighth and Monroe streets. “It’s a part of life.”

Not far from Wilmington’s high-end restaurants and bars, half a dozen liquor stores operate within one square mile. In addition to a scattering of corner stores and take-out joints, they make up the bulk of business activity in a neighborhood once filled with laundromats, seafood markets, grocery stores and bars.

While many West Center City residents accept liquor stores, some argue they hurt the community.

“They are major disruption points throughout West Center City,” said Cassandra Marshall, head of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association. “We have a lot of people who are hanging out in front of those stores, and there is often a great deal of trash.”

Marshall is a member of a working group put together by Mayor Mike Purzycki to help shape a revitalization plan for West Center City. A part of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the plan will focus extra resources on tackling crime, housing quality, public health and a slew of other issues.

Liquor stores became a priority based on feedback from residents like Marshall.

“One of the concerns that we learned as we were going about this process is that some of the convenience stores and the liquor stores were part of the problem in West Center City,” said Tom Ogden, deputy chief of staff for fiscal and operations management and point person on the West Center City initiative.

He added that six liquor stores in such a small area “seems like a lot at face value, but I’m no expert on liquor licensing.”

The mayor’s press release said the plan would “ensure that liquor and convenience stores are compliant with the law and are not contributing to neighborhood instability.”

Marshall explained that it’s not a single issue, but a series of problems that bring down the quality of the neighborhood. “The crowds, the trash, the traffic problems are definite quality- of-life issues,” she said. “I can’t think of a single liquor store that has not been the source of a lot of anger since I’ve been here.”

She added that the people drinking and loitering outside of the stores discourage other people from shopping there or even walking by on the street. “They are magnets for people to just hang throughout the day without actually doing much of anything,” Marshall said.

That’s exactly the point, according to Jonathan Park, a real estate agent and owner of Quaker Hill Liquors at Seventh and Washington streets. He said his store is a public gathering space for people who often don’t have yards or even stoops.

“They have nowhere to go. They have no car, no job,” said Park, who has owned his shop for nine years. “The city does not give them a good place to go.”

One resident standing outside of Quaker Hill Liquors with a can of beer in hand agreed. “We’re not in the suburbs where we got a lawn,” he said. “People can drink and get out of hand. But that doesn’t mean liquor stores and the people around liquor stores are the problem.”

Not all liquor stores owners embrace the crowds that gather outside their door. Vinny Patel, owner of Trinity Liquors at 10th and Adams streets, said he tries to distance himself from alcoholics and loiterers.

“We don’t sell cheap beer,” said Patel, referring to the low-price, high-alcohol cans of beer, like Hurricane malt liquor, that are big sellers at many corner stores and liquor stores. “We try to keep ourselves far away from those people.”

Park said he does his best to curb bad behavior and collaborate with the police when there is criminal activity, but that there is only so much he can do as a business owner.

“I think it’s fair to characterize that he is doing as much as he can to tamp down on some of the issues that we have,” Marshall said. “But we feel, as the neighborhood organization, that’s just not enough.”

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program would, in theory, provide support, but what that will look like remains to be seen. Ogden, who is holding regular meetings with a range of stakeholders, said the plan is still in the early stages.

“We will be meeting with them as well,” said Ogden about the liquor store owners. “We want to find out how we can help them. The business owners are an integral part of life in West Center City.”

Lt. James Diana, an agent for the Delaware Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement and a member of the mayor’s working group, said increased enforcement could mean focused inspections to make sure the stores are complying with the law.

This would address violations that often occur behind the counter, such as selling alcohol to minors, selling loose cigarettes or buying alcohol from other retailers instead of a distributor.

When it comes to what happens outside the establishment, Diana said that’s in the hands of the business owners, the community, and the police.

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