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2 a.m. bar closing time gets no support; Bemidji City Council vote expected Dec. 20

If there is community support for a later bar closing time, it was not evident Monday night.

The Bemidji City Council held the public hearing on an ordinance change that would allow bar owners the option of remaining open one hour later, from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Ten people spoke during the 23-minute public hearing. All were opposed.

Mitch Rautio, the owner of the Keg 'N' Cork, said a later bar time would only shift the schedules of the younger bar patrons, who would just drink that much later at a house party before making it to the bars before closing time.

The bars themselves are not going to see an increase in revenue because the customers still will have the same budgets, he said.

"They can only spend X amount of dollars," Rautio said.

The Beltrami Area Beverage Association upheld its previous opinion, stating in a letter that its membership is against the later bar time. Karl Jacobson, the president of BaBa, said he sent a poll to 25 BaBa members.

"The overwhelming and only response I received back was negative toward extending the closing time," he wrote in a letter to the council. "Not one individual was in favor."

Mayor Richard Lehmann specifically asked for someone to speak in favor of the later bar time. No one in the full council chambers indicated his or her support.

The public hearing was held in conjunction with the second reading of the proposed ordinance revision.

If the later bar time is to be approved, it will require three public readings and a majority vote from the council. The later bar closing time would then be allowed 30 days after legal publication.

Lehmann ended discussion on the proposal by telling the audience that the final reading will be Dec. 20, at which time the council will make its final vote.

Lehmann also was in charge of opening the hearing, at which point he said the council was aware of the oft-cited arguments on either side of the issue. He asked that speakers not voice those same points.

Some of those opposed said the city should not cave to demands from developers. The comments referenced a previous request from Zorbaz on the Lake owner Tom Hanson, who in February said he wanted to develop a Zorbaz on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. But Hanson said he would not do so if the city would not allow his business to remain open until 2 a.m. The council rejected Hanson's request on a 4-3 vote.

Steve Fogelson said he hoped the council would promote the assets Bemidji has, such as the cross-country ski trails, the curling club, snowmobile trails and Diamond Point Park.

"We have a lot to offer that a lot of communities do not have to offer," he said. "Let's focus on those. Let's not focus on increasing the bar time from 1 to 2 (a.m.)."

Kathy Johnson agreed, asking whether the City Council would have continued to advocate for the construction of the event center had the council known it would later believe it needed a 2 a.m. bar closing time to sell the land for development.

"I do not believe with all of my heart that we need a 2 o'clock bar closing time to bring other motels, development into this city," she said. "We have so much more going for us."

Brian Freeberg said the council promoted the idea of the event center because it would enhance the community's cultural and business settings.

After listening to the bulk of testimony offered during the hearing, Freeberg said he did not believe the 2 a.m. bar closing time would do either.