License to Swill

Those seeking to serve find a liquor board ready to help

Ask around my neighborhood, and you'll find few folks railing against soccer or beer. But combining the two, just a short march from their front doors? That they call a problem.

Ask me, and I'll agree. In fact, I joined them in fighting a liquor license for the Maracana Indoor Sports Arena, which sits within cheering distance from where I live. A neighborhood email tally showed 57 residents likewise opposing the license, and only 13 in favor. A few weeks later, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to deny Maracana's pursuit.

All this proved futile; Maracana appealed, and on May 2 was granted a Series 7 license by the Arizona State Liquor Board. That allows it to serve beer and wine alongside the fake soccer turf, inside an otherwise dull warehouse at the corner of 18th Street and Jacobus Avenue.

This dynamic is all too common, say critics such as Steve Kozachik, the city councilman whose Ward 6 includes Maracana. Part of the problem, he contends, is that nearly all Liquor Board meetings occur in Phoenix. That means protesting neighbors must skip work to attend. And even if they go, the odds are against them. "What happens is that the appellant lawyers up," he says, "and the lawyers know the rules better than the residents."

Kozachik also faults the City Attorney's Office, which dispatches its people to hearings for licenses the council opposes. "The city does a fairly piss-poor job of going up there," he says. "It's almost perfunctory. They don't do outreach to the residents. They certainly don't bring residents in and prep them as they would if it were a trial."

Then again, you might just follow the money. "Frankly, it's a revenue stream for the state," Kozachik says. "From that standpoint, I don't think the Liquor Board has a particularly strong mandate from the Legislature to look at these things with a real tough eye."

State liquor revenues—including licenses and fines—annually top more than $8 million, with most of that landing in Arizona's general fund.

The councilman's point is well taken. According to information I obtained through a state public records request, at least seven of the nine liquor license applications from Tucson last year were granted, over the fierce objections of neighbors, the City Council, and occasionally the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

But if the fix is in, blame may ultimately lie with the Arizona Legislature. After all, it fashions those laws guiding Liquor Board decisions. And who prods lawmakers to maintain the status quo? Why, the liquor industry, of course, which deftly and routinely outmaneuvers local complaints in the state Capitol.

Dale Wiebusch has watched this squeeze play for years. As a lobbyist with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, he regularly hauls resolutions to the Legislature demanding more local input in Liquor Board decisions. And just as regularly, those resolutions—drafted and approved by the league's 91 members—simply gather dust.

Recently, a bill was introduced to mandate at least one municipal representative on the all-volunteer board. "And it got nowhere," Wiebusch says. "It didn't even get a hearing. The liquor industry is pretty powerful."

But Liquor Board administrator Denise Bale denies that the state simply rolls over for applicants, or for the behemoths of booze. She points to the Maracana, where owner Mladen Kozak gathered petition signatures from supporters who also happened to be his patrons. The petition's bias "wasn't hidden from anyone on the board," she says. "It was brought right out that these were people who signed in favor but weren't necessarily people who lived nearby."

In turn, board decisions must adhere to Title 4 of the Arizona Revised Statutes. "Under Title 4, you have to go on capability, qualifications and reliability," Bale says. "And there was no disputing that the liquor agent and owner of Maracana were capable, qualified and reliable."

That's certainly how Kozak sees himself. The former electrical engineer emphasizes that he's done his best to work with the neighbors, and just wants to serve a few beers in a small corner of the Maracana. "I would not say that the Liquor Board is favoring the applicants over the neighborhoods. It's more or less how you present it. If we were going to use the license for the whole arena, I doubt that we would have gotten it."

But if situations such as Maracana frustrate officials like Kozachik, they also chafe Stacy Stauffer of the City Attorney's Office, who fought the Maracana application before the Liquor Board. Stauffer disputes Kozachik's claim that she does a halfhearted job, countering that neighborhood and council opposition aren't always cogent ammunition against the finer points of Title 4.

"Based on my experience, it is a very frustrating process and procedure, being the person who goes up there and is often lectured by the board about the actions of the City Council," she says. "Of all the hearings I've been to, there was only one license that was denied, and that was based on the (faulty) business plan of the applicant, and the capability, qualifications and reliability of that person. Every other one has been approved over the City Council's recommendation for denial."

They include such notable applicants as The Candy Store, a strip club near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that was the scene of two fatal shootings in 2009, and The Mint, a cabaret on Speedway Boulevard. Both were opposed by the City Council; both were nonetheless approved by the Liquor Board.

That colorful pair are now joined by Maracana. Although it has yet to begin serving beer, prospects of more traffic and din don't please neighbors like longtime resident Valerina Quintana. She lives within feet of the arena's front door, and often comes home to find all the parking spots along her street taken by soccer fans. Then there's the loud chatter of patrons lingering outside Maracana, and the constant racket of cars coming and going well past midnight.

To Quintana, adding beer to this mix is not a bright idea. "There's already noise, and I think it's safe to assume that's going to be exacerbated when they are serving liquor," she says. "When they are under the influence, people do silly things they normally wouldn't do. And it's so close to the neighborhood."

Or at least a lot closer to the neighborhood and its worries than those mandarins from the state Liquor Board will ever dare to tread.