Tower Mart wins battle over booze

Store gets OK from divided planners to sell hard liquor
By: Brandon Darnell The News Messenger
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The Tower Mart on Nicolaus and Lakeside got the OK to sell hard liquor from a divided Planning Commission Sept. 17, to the disdain of the approximately 25 residents who came in opposition. Tower Mart will be the first store of its type in Lincoln to sell hard alcohol. The sales will be restricted to bottles of 375ml or more, and the 10 p.m. closing time will remain in place, said Tower Mart General Manager Nick Battaglia when he addressed the commission. The issue is not a new one. When Tower Mart first applied for a liquor license in 2002, it was granted a license to sell beer and wine only after lengthy negotiations with residents of the nearby neighborhoods in what Commissioner Allen Cuenca referred to as “The Tower Wars.” Since opening its doors in 2004, according to a staff report, Tower Mart has made four attempts to obtain the license and got the nod from City Council recently. During the public hearing, eight residents went to the microphone to voice their concerns and arguments. “My concern is the clientele that will be drawn to the area,” said Peter Hill, who lives within 500 feet of the store. Diedra Milligan, another nearby resident, said she is afraid there will be an increase in DUI cases in the neighborhood, posing a threat to children. Other residents said they wouldn’t feel safe allowing their children to walk to Tower Mart alone anymore, feared for the safety of the nearby parks if people are able to purchase hard alcohol in close proximity and argued that while the alcohol sales will benefit Tower Mart, there is no benefit to the neighborhood in which it lies. “We can’t afford violations,” Battaglia said, adding that Tower Mart does make every effort to ensure that no alcohol is sold to minors. According to the staff report, there were many police incident reports with Tower Mart listed as the address, but police said that most of those were people who were pulled over and cited in the parking lot, being “associated with the address, but not Tower Mart operations.” When it was time for the commissioners to weigh in, Vic Freeman said the Tower Mart benefits the community, making trips into town needed less frequently. “No one is intending to sell liquor to underage people,” Commissioner Richard Wyatt said. Commissioner Kristel Herrera said she was concerned with the message that would be sent with approval of the license, and hoped that it wouldn’t cause a domino effect with similar businesses. “The public trust has been betrayed by both Tower Mart and the City of Lincoln,” said Cuenca, the loudest voice for the opposition on the commission. “I supported them only if they would never sell hard liquor ... Now I find that they are attempting to renege on their agreement,” wrote Michael Storz in an e-mail to Cuenca, which was read aloud during the meeting. Storz was a City Council member when Tower Mart made its initial application for the sale of hard liquor in 2002. With the commission apparently split 2-2, Chairman Dan Cross weighed in. “I don’t think it was ever a promise that … they would give up the hard alcohol,” he said. Cross said he felt that Tower Mart had adhered to the process, and that there is no reason to deny the license for selling distilled spirits. “I don’t see lowlifes coming from other communities to Tower Mart to hang out,” he said. He added that any perceived threat to the nearby parks won’t be exacerbated by Tower Mart’s selling hard alcohol, since anyone can purchase hard alcohol in town at places like Raley’s and Safeway, then take it to the park in an ice chest. If there is a problem, he said, then it is up to the police to enforce the existing laws. When put to a vote, the license was granted in a 3-2 decision, with Cuenca and Herrera being the dissenters. A largely frustrated audience left the building at that point, along with Battaglia. As Battaglia headed to his car, he was chased by the assurances from residents that he had lost a lot of business. “I’m very disappointed,” Milligan said. She said Tower Mart had clearly promised, in 2002, not to apply for the license later. She said she still fears children will be able to get hard alcohol. “Why make it available?” she asked. “I think it’s sort of silly. You can just go into town and get your bottle,” said David Johnson. He said Tower Mart is conveniently located for him, since he doesn’t have to drive from his home near the airport all the way into town to get conveniences. “Tower Mart has been good,” he said.