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Bar closing times: Bemidji, Beltrami County ponder issue of public input

Define public input. Is it those who show up and speak at public hearings? Is it those who send letters and e-mails to elected officials? Is it more?

Beltrami County commissioners and Bemidji city councilors met in a joint session Monday evening at City Hall to discuss bar closing times.

One of the points raised centered on public input and how it is obtained.

Beltrami County commissioners put emphasis on the need to hear from the general public on their proposal to prohibit county bars from selling alcohol after 1 a.m. Their public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Feb. 1.

"I do not hear an overwhelming cry that we need a 2 a.m. (closing)," said Commissioner Jim Lucachick.

The Bemidji City Council has already approved an ordinance that would allow city bars the option of serving alcohol until 2 a.m.

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, who supports the later bar closing time, noted that the council held its public hearing Dec. 6, at which time 10 people spoke and all were opposed to the later bar time.

Waldhausen said younger generations, though, may not express their opinions in ways to which councilors and commissioners are accustomed.

He said residents who support the later bar closing time have been vocal online in blogs and on a Facebook group that supported bringing Zorbaz on the Lake to Bemidji.

The Facebook group, Waldhausen said, had 600-plus members.

He said he will continue to support the 2 a.m. closing time because his constituents continue to ask him to do so.

Bemidji City Councilor Rita Albrecht said she, too, reads local blogs and is a member of the Facebook group, but that does not mean that she supports the later bar closing time.

Rather, she said, she was a member of the group so she could read what others were saying.

Albrecht said about 15 people or so have contacted her about the issue. Not one has been in favor of the later bar time.

Former Bemidji Councilor Jerry Downs also spoke at the meeting, urging county commissioners and city councilors to consider the economic impact of the decision.

The 2 a.m. bar closing time is loosely connected to a proposal for Lake Bemidji Lodge, a $6 million mixed-use development that would feature more than 20 residential units to be built in tandem with a commercial anchor.

The commercial anchor has been proposed to be Zorbaz on the Lake, a pizza/bar restaurant chain. But Zorbaz owner Tom Hanson has stated that his business model relies on a 2 a.m. bar closing time and would not expand to Bemidji without one.

Downs said the city already has rededicated more than $180,000 that used to partially fund the operation of the Bemidji Regional Airport and another $150,000 from long-term maintenance funds to help cover the interest needed to pay off the bonds used to purchase and develop the south shore redevelopment.

A $6 million project on the south shore would help offset those costs, Downs said.

"We have significant financial challenges," he said.

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said he would trade for the city's financial burdens if the city would take over the financial requirements needed to fund human services, public health and the jail, which are all impacted by alcohol use.

While most everyone stressed the importance of making sure the city's and county's ordinances were in sync - so to avoid a last-call rush across county roadways - Waldhausen noted that the city already did that.

But voting to approve the later bar time, the city set up a process through which it would match the county's allowed time.

Unless a municipality passes an ordinance stating otherwise, bars have the option for applying for a state permit that would allow them to remain open until 2 a.m. So the county, by default, has been allowing county bars that option.

Waldhausen said the statements at the meeting made it sound as if Bemidji has made a terrible decision and now the county is working to try to realign that.

But, he said, that is not the case. Bemidji's vote, in fact, made things equal and it is the county's current ordinance consideration that would, again, make things unequal.

Commissioner Jack Frost, appearing via telephone, and Councilor Ron Johnson both said it would have been ideal for the joint conversations to have begun last year, before the council took action.

"We all want the same thing," Frost said, "We want what is best for Bemidji and greater Bemidji."

While it was unfortunate that the joint meeting was triggered due to a "hot-button issue," Beltrami County Chairman Joe Vene said he hoped some conversations would continue.

"I hope that we will change the way we talk about things and we talk to one another more regularly," he said.

Councilor Roger Hellquist noted that one of the Destiny Drivers endorsed by "BemidjiLeads!" is to have Bemidji by 2015 have the lowest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the state.

"(A later bar closing time) isn't going to bring any end to the problems with alcohol that we see in this county, which are staggering," Hellquist said.

One of two public members to address officials, Henry Krigbaum said he wanted to hear from officials about what should be done to address the problems created by alcohol and its abuse.

Noting that the suggestions may not be practical, he asked why officials were not talking about prohibiting alcohol completely from the community or cutting off sales at midnight.

His comments prompted several officials to note that the community needs a detox center and help for those with alcohol issues.