After Closing Liquor Stores, Nebraska Town Pushes For Renewal

Aug 3, 2017
Originally published on August 3, 2017 4:52 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Whiteclay, Neb., was infamous for its liquor stores for decades. The tiny town of about a dozen people had four liquor stores. They sold millions of cans of beer to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned. All of that changed on May 1 when the state closed down the stores. Reporter Jim Kent recently returned to Whiteclay to see what life is like now that it's alcohol-free.

JIM KENT, BYLINE: On any given day prior to May 1, you'd have seen cars lined up here outside of Whiteclay's four liquor stores, drunken customers wandering the streets, dilapidated buildings and trash - lots of trash. Bruce BonFleur is the pastor at Lakota Hope Ministry here in Whiteclay. Driving with him in his truck through town, you can see the changes.

BRUCE BONFLEUR: You know, before, the beer stores - when they were operating, there were a lot of people along here. And then you'd see an old mattress, you know, kind of a mini camp set up, lots of trash. Look at how clean the road is, Jim, you know? This is not the usual thing. This is - but this is part of the new Whiteclay.

KENT: Whiteclay does look like a different town. Several dilapidated buildings have been torn down and old storefronts repaired. There's a palpable push for renewal here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK BACK-UP ALARM)

KENT: That's evident here as earthmovers scrape this lot to prepare the site for a new dollar store. In many places, a dollar store might not be embraced as a sign of progress. But here, it is. Randy Guiler is spokesman for the store's parent company. He says demographics and a competitive environment are key factors in planning where to expand.

RANDY GUILER: My sense is - is that the area of Whiteclay is under-served with the consumable product that we sell. And we felt it was a good opportunity to open a store and support that community.

KENT: Nadine Morrison is from Pine Ridge but works in Whiteclay at Lakota Hope Ministry. She knows that the streets are no longer filled with wandering alcoholics.

NADINE MORRISON: A lot of them are home, not sure what to do with themselves. They're cleaning their yards. They're - you know, some of them are still drinking. But they don't have that access to them every single day.

KENT: And if they're still looking for beer, they have to drive nearly an hour to another Nebraska town. But not everyone in Whiteclay agrees about the pace of progress. Lance Moss has owned Whiteclay Grocery for 20 years and thinks this new image of the town that's being touted is a bit overblown, though he does like what he sees so far.

LANCE MOSS: Do I miss all of the things that went on before, all the people hanging out and whatever? I don't miss that at all. But I do not agree with - that the liquor stores should be shut down. You know, the town's got a bit of a facelift. But anybody that's telling you there's these dramatic changes or these big thing - I mean I don't know where they're coming from.

KENT: Artist Catherine Blue Bird lives on the bordering Pine Ridge Reservation. She says the changes in Whiteclay make it safer for her to come sell her art here.

CATHERINE BLUE BIRD: And I'm grateful for that because we've been losing a lot of loved ones from this alcohol that was up here. And I see that now that there were some people that sobered up. It's because Whiteclay closed. And I'm thankful for that.

KENT: With the streets cleared of stumbling drinkers, a new national retail store set to open and local Native American artists willing to visit Whiteclay, the town is certainly moving in a different direction. Just how long that will continue could be determined soon. That's because the store owners go to court later this month to try to get back their liquor licenses. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent in Whiteclay, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR TWIN SISTER SONG, "IN THE HOUSE OF YES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.