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Bemidji City Council candidate forum: Bar closing time change unlikely

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

If Zorbaz is looking for a friendlier City Council next year when - or if - it requests a 2 a.m. bar closing time. It doesn't seem overly likely.

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Candidates for Bemidji City Council, including mayor, were asked in their debates Wednesday night how they felt about a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

The current council voted 4-2 in February to reject a request from Zorbaz owner Tom Hanson for a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

All three sitting council members - Jerry Downs, Roger Hellquist and Ron Johnson - referenced the original vote about seven years ago, when the 2 a.m. bar closing time was made an option. No one really wanted a later time, so the council decided to stick with the 1 a.m. time.

However, once Hanson requested the time change, it again became an issue.

Hellquist and Johnson voted in February to keep the 1 a.m. time while Downs was in the minority who were in favor of the 2 a.m. bar closing time.

Did their positions change at all?

Downs, running for re-election in Ward 4, said the city needs to consider the idea as it could spur a land sale in the south shore and impact the area's economy.

Hellquist, running for re-election in Ward 2, said the downtown bars still are not in favor of a later closing time.

However, he said, if there is a good argument for a later bar closing, he would be willing to listen to it.

Johnson, the current Ward 3 councilor now running for mayor, said he was neither for it nor against, noting that some bars don't even stay open past 11 p.m. on weeknights. Johnson wondered if there was not a possible compromise where bars could perhaps stay open later on weekends.

For those not on the council, none seemed eager to push back the bar closing time.

Richard "Dick" Sathers, running against Hellquist for Ward 2, said his understanding is that the local bars do not want a later closing.

Rita Albrecht, running for Ward 4 against Downs, said she did not know how she would have voted. She has heard complaints that Bemidji is anti-business and this would, reportedly, help get a new business to come to town. But she said she knew the Bemidji Police Department was not in favor of a later closing.

Dave Larson, running for mayor, said he did not know why someone would need to drink even later and believed a 1 a.m. closing would be appropriate for this community.

Linda Lemmer, running for the at-large council position, said she could remember herself and co-workers rushing from the city liquor store to a bar for one drink before closing. She said pushing the time back to 2 a.m. would cause some people in town to rush from one establishment that closes at 1 a.m. to one that closes at 2 a.m. for one or two more drinks.

Jim Thompson, also running for the at-large council position, said he believed it would be better to stay with the 1 a.m. time since those who would be drink from 1-2 a.m. would likely be heavier drinkers more apt to cause trouble on the roadways.

All eight candidates agreed that if a 2 a.m. bar closing time were adopted, it would have be an option extended to all bars throughout town.

The debates

The Citizens for an Informed Electorate hosted two debates Wednesday night featuring the candidates for council.

First up were the two ward races - Ward 2 (Hellquist and Sathers) and Ward 4 (Albrecht and Downs).

Following that was a debate with the local races on which the entire city can vote on - mayor (Johnson and Larson) and the at-large councilor position (Johnson and Lemmer).

Both debates lasted about 90 minutes and were moderated by Brad Swenson, the opinion page/political editor of the Bemidji Pioneer and John Parsons, a freelance videojournalist.

Both debates featured about 15 questions.

Annexation

Both debates did not always feature the same questions, but annexation was apparently a concern from those in the audience.

Several questions were received that asked councilors to expand on their beliefs regarding annexation and whether they believe it should be pursued sooner rather than later.

Several candidates, including Downs, Hellquist, Johnson, Sathers and Thompson, said they annexation was important to grow the city's tax base.

"Initially, it will be somewhat expensive, but in the long haul, it will certainly increase or tax base," Thompson said.

Albrecht, however, said she was not necessarily anxious to pursue annexation due to the additional pressures and costs of services that will be need to be extended to the new city residents.

Larson said he was in favor of annexation if it is done in an orderly way in accordance to the process that has been developed, especially since it will increase the city's tax base. However, he added that he believes the charter and ordinances governing the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board need to be revised.

Lemmer said she does have some concerns about how much information affected residents have received, and will receive, before the process begins.

"One thing I like about it is there is long-range planning," she said.

Both sets of candidates were asked how they felt about the future of Neilson Reise Arena, which generates a deficit every year, especially when considering that the Bemidji Regional Event Center is expected to operate at a deficit.

Thompson said the curling club is an integral part of Bemidji culture and needs to remain viable.

Larson said Neilson-Reise, located in the newly renovated Bemidji City Park, is now located in the middle of a beautiful park with the Bemidji Skate Park, ski trails, softball complex and gathering areas. As part of the community and culture, he said, he could not see the arena ceasing to operate in the future.

Johnson said the arena wasn't going anywhere. In fact, he said, the deficit has been decreased from $160,000 a year to about $80,000 or $90,000.

"Neilson is important another reason," he said. "It's where the hockey team practices."

Neilson-Reise is the backup location for Bemidji State University hockey, which generally uses the BREC. But if the BREC books a revenue-producing event, the hockey teams practice at Neilson-Reise.

Lemmer said the arena is important and that the BREC should not impact the future if Neilson-Reise.

Downs said he expects the BREC to surprise people in terms of an operating deficit. Once the south shore land is sold and the tax base is created, Downs said, he did not believe the facility would generate an operating deficit.

Hellquist said the council authorized a rehabilitation of Neilson-Reise after a catastrophic failure in the ice place. Further, he said, the financial situation at the arena has greatly improved in the last three years, and while it still does cost the city to run, he would like to keep it open.

"The event center provides one more sheet of ice, but we still are not plush with ice," he said. "There still is going to be a need for ice for figure skating, youth hockey."

Sathers said he, too, would like to keep the arena open as it is a viable part of Bemidji.

Albrecht credited Marcia Larson, the city's park and recreation director, on reducing the operating deficit at the arena.

Candidates were asked about how they would redevelop downtown.

The ward candidates were asked about downtown in general.

Downs said the RDG downtown study revealed a lot of ideas, but funding would be necessary to implement them.

Hellquist said the city would have to partner with a private developer to accomplish a larger, complete redevelopment of a portion of downtown. Otherwise, the city and Downtown Development Authority would continue with smaller projects, such as last summer's reconstruction and redesign of parking lot No. 3.

Sathers said the trend has been to see big-box stores locate on the outskirts of town and move away from downtown. He said he was pleased the event center was moved from downtown as it anchors a lovely development on the south shore.

Albrecht said the council needs to cooperate with businesses, look at the downtown study carefully, find a portion of interest and apply for grants and located the funds to get it done.

Citywide candidates were asked, specifically, about the railroad corridor.

Johnson said he would like to see senior housing, similar to the VistaNorth developments, downtown. Seniors would then be close to businesses, the library, the Senior Center and downtown activities, such as the Night We Light parade.

Lemmer agreed, saying other cities have seen that downtown housing has re-energized downtown businesses. It would be a benefit to businesses to have nearby shoppers and a benefit to residents to be near stores.

Thompson said he believes that city-owned lots should be sold to private developers.

Larson said anything done downtown needs to complement the downtown core and suggested that if housing were pursued, to make it market-rate housing. He said the land should be sold to a private developer to place it back on the tax rolls.

The candidates for wards 2 and 4 were asked 15 questions.

One of them was from a question-writer (they were anonymous) about the council's decision to not have a revote on the event center issue, even after more than 1,000 people signed a petition asking for another vote.

If elected, how would the candidates handle a similar situation, the question asked.

Albrecht, noting that the council followed the advice of its attorney, said the petitioners should have been listened to given a chance to be heard.

"I'm not real proud of the way our mayor handled that particular meeting," she said. "I think our City Council needs to be much more respectful."

Downs said it was a very contentious time on the council, and it was important the council move forward on the event center project.

Hellquist agreed, saying it was a difficult, contentious situation, but the city attorney said the petition was not presented in the proper format. Hellquist said there should have been better communication and that the situation could have been handled better.

Sathers said the petition represented everything that local government is all about.

"We have to listen to you people," he said. "That shouldn't have been blown off the way it was."

Another question was about high-density housing projects. Albrecht, while working as a city staffer, had supported a high-density housing project that would have been located along Rako Street.

Sathers said he did not know much about the particular issue, but was encouraged that residents were taking an active interest in their future of their neighborhoods.

Albrecht, saying she was in favor of affordable housing, said it was an excellent location for a high-density housing project and that it make sense to create affordable homes for middle-income folks such teachers and police officers.

Downs said he was opposed to the plan because the area in which it was proposed was an upscale area home to seniors. He said he supported affordable housing as long as it did not take away from or devaluate many existing homes.

"I don't think we need to put high-density housing in an area that is naturally evolving," he said.

Hellquist said he did research on that particular project and found 172 houses available for purchase at the time in Bemidji on the Multiple Listing Service.

He wondered why more houses would be needed and instead supported a plan that would help people rehabilitate existing housing stock rather than build new.

In the mayoral and at-large councilor debate, candidates were posed 17 questions.

One of those questions was whether there was value or not in being a lifelong resident.

Thompson said he believes the more you know about history, the better information is available to make decisions on. He noted that some believe history is valued because then you are less likely to repeat mistakes.

Larson said he has extensive experience as a business owner, architect and developer, through which he worked with the staffs of more than 40 cities across the country.

"That life experience is perfectly applicable," he said.

Johnson said he did not believe that a mayor had to be born and raised in his town, but that it would not be a bad thing to understand the history of the town.

His history as a native Bemidjian, he said, showed him the loss the community felt when the old high school was torn down and when Diamond Point deteriorated before it was renovated.

Lemmer said there are advantages to having lived elsewhere and learning from other communities' ventures.

"However the history, knowing what has been, how it's been and advocating for preserving the positives that we have had over the course of years is very important," she said.

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