LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A faith ministry in Nebraska has started a fundraising campaign to buy out four stores that sell millions of cans of beer each year in a tiny village next to a South Dakota Indian reservation plagued by alcoholism.
The Lakota Hope street ministry in Whiteclay is looking to raise at least $6.3 million to close the stores, which are only about 200 yards from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The officially dry reservation is plagued by high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome and encompasses some of the nation's poorest counties.
Whiteclay only has about a dozen residents, yet the four stores sold 3.5 million cans of beer in 2015. The beer stores have remained opened for decades despite state investigations into alleged liquor law violations, lawsuits and protests that occasionally turned violent.
Ministry founder Bruce BonFleur and his wife have lived in Whiteclay for nearly two decades, feeding people on the streets and launching programs designed to help members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. BonFleur said he has talked with the businesses, and "we believe that the beer store owners are ready to sell out."
The stores have been facing increasing legal and political pressure, and state liquor regulators are meeting next month to discuss the stores' licenses.
Still, some activists have their doubts. Olowan Martinez, an Oglala Lakota activist who has led protests against Whiteclay, said she would be thrilled but shocked if the buyout worked as intended. Martinez said she would support replacing the stores with a roller skating rink, movie theater or a park to help entertain young people.
The idea rang hollow to Frank LaMere, a Native American activist who has fought for 18 years to close the stores. LaMere said the beer store owners shouldn't be rewarded with a payout and wants the state to revoke their liquor licenses.
"Whiteclay sadly continues to be the golden goose to many," LaMere said.
On a recent day in the Whiteclay, some people were passed out on garbage-strewn sidewalks or begging for change. Others loitered on the streets or in abandoned houses littered with dirty blankets and empty beer cans. Some people wandered along the side of the main highway through town, Nebraska Highway 87, which leads into the reservation, past 1970s-era federal housing, decrepit mobile homes and abandoned cars.
Lance Moss, a Whiteclay grocery store owner who does not sell alcohol, said he didn't know if the town would change substantially if the beer stores were sold. Moss said some regular visitors might congregate in Whiteclay and buy beer from bootleggers.
"Obviously, all the beer that's sold in Whiteclay is going to get sold someplace else," he said.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission is set to meet March 7 to discuss the stores' liquor licenses amid complaints that the village lacks adequate law enforcement. Last month, the local county board with jurisdiction over Whiteclay recommended that the state renew the licenses, partially amid concerns that closing the stores would lead to an increase of intoxicated drivers in Nebraska.
Representatives of two of the Whiteclay beer stores, Stateline Liquor and Arrowhead Inn, declined to comment because of their pending cases before the liquor commission. Attempts to reach the owners of the Jumping Eagle Inn and D&S Pioneer Service weren't immediately successful.
The ministry's new effort is called "B.O.B.S. Whiteclay P.L.A.N.," short for "Buy out the beer stores" and "Promote the Lakotas as a nation."
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