A new effort to reduce violence and panhandling in Whiteclay is slowly taking shape, but some people say they won't be satisfied until the tiny village stops selling beer near an Indian reservation plagued by alcoholism.
Activists who want to close the town's four beer stores said they're grateful that lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts are trying to address the problems. However, they argue that some of the new proposals would force taxpayers to pay for a situation caused by the stores.
"Any solution that does not involve the closure of those four beer stores is wholly inadequate and immoral," said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who filmed a documentary about Whiteclay.
Whiteclay sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer last year despite having a dozen residents. The northwest Nebraska village sits on the border of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcohol-related problems run rampant. An estimated one in four children on the reservation is born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Maisch said the state should never have granted four liquor licenses in a village with no full-time law enforcement.
State alcohol regulators have said they can't revoke a beer-seller's license without proof the business is violating liquor laws.
Ricketts has said he wants a solution to come from Whiteclay residents and business owners. In June, a task force that formed at his urging came up with six ideas.
The list includes placing full-time law enforcement in the area; creating a detoxification and treatment center; getting rid of abandoned buildings; developing a village economic development plan; seeking authority from lawmakers to enact ordinances aimed at panhandling, vagrancy and other problems; and improving the state's relationship with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose members live on the reservation.
Whiteclay grocery store owner Lance Moss, who serves on the task force, argued that even if the beer stores closed, people would still congregate in the area and drink alcohol sold by people who buy it elsewhere.
Moss said many of the alcohol containers scattered on sidewalks and in nearby fields are mini-liquor bottles, which none of the stores sell. The town's residents and business owners want to reduce the violence and panhandling, he said, but a long-term solution will take time.
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"I'm hopeful, very hopeful, that some things will change," said Moss, whose store does not sell beer. "But if you think that by closing these four (beer stores), one less can of beer would be drank, you're not living in reality. That's my opinion, but I grew up here. I've lived here 47 years. I know all of these people. I know how things work around here."
Moss said Whiteclay used to only attract four or five regulars, but the number has grown to about 60 a day. Many are younger, angrier and more violent, he said, and his employees have to shoo panhandlers out of the grocery store's parking lot at least 100 times a day.
The task force's ideas closely resemble proposals floated by state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who visited Whiteclay earlier this year and was threatened by a man with a rock.
Pansing Brooks said she'd like to see job-training programs in Whiteclay as well as broadband service for distance learning programs and telehealth services.
Fixing the problems will require a "multi-faceted approach" that focuses on more than just the beer stores, she said.
"I think there's a movement afoot right now to do something about Whiteclay, and it's partly due to people who are so passionate about it," Pansing Brooks said.
Frank LaMere, who has fought to close the beer stores since the 1990s, said the burden of paying for social services should fall on the beer stores.
"I think I know who will foot the bill, and it certainly will not be those who have made millions over the decades," said LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
A spokesman for Ricketts said the governor's task force was planning to meet again to discuss specific ways to move forward with its recommendations.
"Once those plans have been outlined, the governor will sit down with the task force to see where it might be appropriate for him to support solutions consistent with good public policy," said spokesman Taylor Gage.