Concerns over an increase in alcohol use outweighed a potential decrease in downtown traffic and parking congestion as Tofino’s municipal council rejected an application for a new liquor store last week.
The rejection illustrated a growing movement against alcohol use in the community and reflected a change of heart for council, which had voted in favour of moving the application ahead when it was first proposed in the spring.
Council had reviewed the liquor store application during their May 28 regular meeting where councillors Tom Stere and Duncan McMaster each expressed vehement opposition to increasing the town’s access to alcohol, but were outnumbered by support from mayor Josie Osborne and councillors Britt Chalmers, Al Anderson and Andrea McQuade.
Council’s May 28 vote gave district staff permission to work with the applicant to create a bylaw that would have allowed Tofino’s Gas ‘n’ Go to sell alcohol at its current convenience store location at 901 Campbell Street.
First reading of that bylaw arrived on council’s desk on Sept. 10 where it was rejected 4-1, with councillors Anderson and McQuade joining Stere and McMaster in opposition. Mayor Osborne was absent from the meeting.
Prior to making their Sept. 10 decision, council heard from local physician Dr. Carrie Marshall who urged them to reject the application and said alcohol use has dominated every meeting she has had with local health care providers and first responders.
“We have a severe alcohol problem on the West Coast here. I think there’s probably a big disconnect between people that are using alcohol responsibly and what the reality of our lives look like as physicians, as police officers, as BC Ambulance paramedics,” she said.
“There’s a public health saying that says basically, for us, dealing with alcohol is like washing your hands and drying them in the dirt. It’s just a continuous cycle. We are totally under-resourced for it and increasing access is going to perpetuate that problem for us.”
She said the West Coast is drastically under-resourced to combat substance abuse issues and encouraged council to take a public stand for community health rather than approving a new liquor store and “feeding the beast that we’re just not resourced for.”
A key reason for the application’s success on May 28 was district staff’s belief that adding a liquor store at the Campbell Street Gas ‘n’ Go would decrease traffic in the downtown core.
In staff’s Sept. 10 report to council, Tofino’s Chief Administrative Officer Bob MacPherson wrote that the owner of the Gas ‘n’ Go operates successful liquor stores elsewhere on Vancouver Island.
“I have visited their retail liquor store in Cedar (Nanaimo) that is collocated with a gas station and convenience store. The liquor retail operation was unobtrusive and appeared to work well with the other land uses on site,” MacPherson wrote. “As Tofino continues to evolve, it will be desirable to reduce certain single purpose trips into Tofino’s downtown. Presently, the only locations where residents and visitors may purchase retail liquor is in the downtown core. During times of peak congestion, allowing retail liquor sales outside of downtown will reduce congestion.”
Coun. Stere countered that there was no hard evidence to prove the proposed liquor store would decrease traffic and argued against the idea that there are no other retail liquor outlets in the vicinity of the Gas ‘n’ Go, pointing to nearby Industrial Way’s Tofino Brewing Company and Tofino Distillery.
Coun. McMaster also re-emphasized his opposition to the application, citing a Feb. 26 presentation council received from Central Vancouver Island’s Medical Health Officer Dr. Paul Hasselback who had urged council to address Tofino’s “significant” alcohol issue.
Coun. McQuade had spoken in support of the application on May 28, but said conversations she’d had with community health care providers since then had changed her stance.
“I’m not a prohibitionist by any stretch, but the presentation of a potential mitigation of traffic versus the almost expressed and certain impacts of [alcohol] availability and use that have been presented…all have to be considered by council,” she said.
“I believe that the tension that’s here, that everyone is gesturing towards between reducing traffic and parking resources and taxing our first responders and our mental health system is one that’s a no-brainer for me. I believe that there’s some sort of culture shift required on the West Coast for our alcohol use and I don’t think that that will originate at council, but I do think that we have these small measures that we can take that can perhaps guide our town and our council decisions towards what we’d like as a culture here.”
Coun. Chalmers was the only councillor to remain in favour of the application and the sole vote to move it forward to second reading.
She agreed that the town’s alcohol consumption issue must be addressed, but said the new store would have improved access for people who are not abusing alcohol to pick up wine or ciders not currently available outside the downtown core.
The Westerly News reached out to the Tofino RCMP for comment about the impacts alcohol is having on local policing and detachment commander Sgt. Todd Pebernat said, “Alcohol is a factor in about one-third of our total calls for service.
“In some of our more serious Criminal Code investigations, such as Sex Assaults, the prevalence of alcohol doubles to about two thirds of our calls for service.”