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Zorbaz looks to Bemidji again

BEMIDJI — A regional pizza restaurant chain appears to be making another run at buying land on the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

Zorbaz on the Lake founder Tom Hanson is scheduled to present the Bemidji Economic Development Authority with a proposal Monday night, according to the meeting agenda. A portion of the meeting is scheduled to be closed for city councilors to discuss negotiations for the city-owned land.

It’s unclear which lot Zorbaz may be looking to buy, but it's presumably on the city's south shore. All of its 11 locations sit on the shores of northern or central Minnesota lakes, including in Detroit Lakes, Gull Lake in Nisswa and Little Pine Lake in Perham.

There are currently five available lots on the Lake Bemidji lakeshore.

Zorbaz, which has a penchant for replacing the letter “s” with “z,” was looking to buy land on the south shore in 2010. But Hanson told the council then that he wouldn’t build there if the city’s ordinance didn’t allow the business to stay open until 2 a.m.

The City Council voted 4-2 vote in February 2010 to keep the 1 a.m. bar closing time, effectively stalling the proposal.

Gerald Johnson, Bemidji’s police chief at the time, worried about the increased availability of alcohol later at night with a higher crime rate than other cities with a 2 a.m. closing. The Bemidji Area Beverage Association had opposed the change, as well.

Hanson disputed the notion that his business would create more safety risks in a letter to The Pioneer.

“All of my locations serve food and beverages until 2 a.m. and we have never had any issues with our business model,” he wrote in the April 2010 letter, adding that later closing times help facilities like the Sanford Center draw conventions. “Forty-eight states realized the necessity of the 2 a.m. closing to compete with other convention locales as has every city in Minnesota attempting to draw convention business.”

The City Council then voted in December 2010 to allow establishments the option of staying open until 2 a.m., with former City Councilor Jerry Downs arguing that it would help sell south shore land.

“One of the goals of the council is to sell the south shore,” he said at the time.

If councilors agree to sell land Monday, it will be the second time this month. They voted to sell a 2.67 acre lot on the west side of the Sanford Center parking lot for about $350,000 to a Grand Forks, N.D.-based developer for a high-end apartment building on June 17.

Hanson and Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel, who has been working with Zorbaz on the proposal, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon. 

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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