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Bemidji City Council: City nixes 2 a.m. closing

The Bemidji City Council Monday evening upheld its decision from seven years ago to halt liquor sales at 1 a.m.

The council met in a work session to discuss extending liquor serving hours from 1 a.m. - what is currently allowed - to 2 a.m.

The council voted 4-2 in favor of the 1 a.m. closing.

Lehmann voted for the 1 a.m. time along with Councilors Roger Hellquist, Ron Johnson and Greg Negard. Councilors Jerry Downs and Kevin Waldhausen were opposed. Councilor Barb Meuers was absent.

"All it would do is move everything an hour later into the night," said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

Karl Jacobson, the president of the Bemidji Area Beverage Association, and Mitch Rautio, the owner of Keg 'n' Cork, both wrote letters opposed to a 2 a.m. bar time.

Jacobson stated that he took a straw poll of 25 individuals associated with BABA.

"The overwhelming and only response I received back was negative toward extending this closing time," Jacobson wrote. "Not one individual was in favor."

The council's decision followed a presentation from Tom Hanson, the owner and founder of Zorbaz on the Lake, who last week told the council that he wants to build a new Zorbaz location in the south shore redevelopment.

But, Hanson said, he won't do it without a 2 a.m. closing time.

Councilors said they did not particularly like the pressure applied by Hanson.

"I feel like I've got a gun to my head, and I don't like that feeling," Negard said.

And some weren't buying Hanson's statements that a 2 a.m. bar closing is needed for a business to succeed.

"If they're serious about coming here, 1 a.m. versus 2 a.m. isn't going to change anything," Lehmann said.

Downs, however, said that he believed the 2 a.m. closing time could become a recurring request from potential establishments.

"Eventually, we're going to have to deal with it again," he said. "It's an inevitable prospect as this community grows."

The 8,000-square-foot Zorbaz would anchor a 24- to 30-unit condominium complex in the south shore redevelopment, Hanson said. Zorbaz would be located on the ground floor and the condos would be included in a five-story building above.

City Manager John Chattin said the 2 a.m. bar closing was a requirement in Zorbaz's development proposal.

"He said he would not come here without it," Chattin said.

Downs stressed that his top concerns right now for the south shore are getting land sold for development and keeping operations and maintenance costs low.

If Bemidji wants to be seen as a progressive community and a regional center, Downs said, Bemidji has to compete with other regional centers that have a 2 a.m. closing.

"All these little things add up to moving us forward," he said.

Lehmann responded that he would "hate" to have cities being defined as either progressive or non-progressive based on whether they have a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

Waldhausen said the bar closing time alone may not make a city progressive, but that it would be "another piece of the puzzle."

"You have to have all of the pieces to make it work," he said.

Bob LeBarron, the executive director of the Bemidji Regional Event Center, was asked for his opinion: Would a 2 a.m. closing time bring in more conventions?

LeBarron said he would defer to people like VisitBemidji's former executive director, Gayle Quistgard, who for more than 20 years worked to bring visitors to town.

"She said in 25 years, that question has never come up, what time do the bars close," LeBarron said.

Chattin noted, too, that as he has continued to pursue a hotel partner for the BREC, no one has asked for a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

Waldhausen asked councilors to remember the times they have been asked to approve tax-increment financing for a housing development and noted that last year the city partnered on a road project north of Bi-CAP that will allow for the establishment of transitional housing for homeless families.

"Is this any different a request?" he said.

"I think so," Hellquist responded. "Those are for the good of the community."

Hellquist said it is not to the community's benefit to have bars serving alcohol an hour later.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," he said.

Police chief speaks

Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson made several statements during the work session.

He countered a statement from Hanson, who last week claimed that all 10 of his existing restaurants are in cities that allow the 2 a.m. closing.

Johnson pointed out that several of the existing Zorbaz locations are outside of city limits, such as the one near Park Rapids.

More so, Johnson said, the other 10 communities do not deal with the same issues that the Bemidji area does.

"The fact of the matter is we have a lot higher of a crime rate than those other communities," he said.

What worried him, Johnson said, was having an establishment open later than others in the community because it would become a destination meeting place for people.

"We'd be better off having all (establishments) open than having them all congregate at one place," he said.

Streets impact

The late bar closing time would have also impacted the streets department, according to Craig Gray, the city's public works director/city engineer.

Streets crews already have to avoid plowing downtown streets until about 1:30-1:45 a.m. because of customers parked along downtown streets.

The city now has signs that post no parking from 1-7 a.m.