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Bemidji City Council begins review of outdoor dining ordinance amendments

At its work session Monday, the Bemidji City Council discussed potential updates to its ordinances, allowing businesses to have outdoor dining. The council also discussed a pending settlement related to the opioid epidemic.

Bemidji City Hall 2020 web art.jpg
Bemidji City Hall.
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BEMIDJI -- Outdoor dining in downtown Bemidji may very well continue in 2022, but the specifics are still being worked out.

During a work session Monday, the Bemidji City Council was presented with a draft of amendments to its ordinances related to restaurants and bars. The amendments would provide establishments with the ability to serve outdoors outside of emergency settings.

In June 2020, the council took action to allow restaurants to serve alcohol outdoors and use the public right-of-way for patio space. The move was made in response to rules set by Gov. Tim Walz, where only outdoor dining was allowed to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the ensuing warm-weather months, the city set up barricades in areas of downtown to block off patios from the road. Outdoor dining continued in 2021, with restaurants continuing to place tables on both sidewalks and parking spaces.

The amendments presented Monday would continue allowing liquor sales and the use of public right-of-way. Examples of what the amendments would accomplish include:

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  • Adding definitions for different business uses such as “outdoor dining areas,” “seasonal expansion of licenses” and “street cafes.”
  • Adding new sections about seasonal license expansions and regulations of outdoor dining areas.
  • A requirement of public hearings and corresponding notifications of neighboring property owners within 150 feet of a licensed establishment.
  • Rules for live entertainment oversight, handicap accessibility and trash pickup.

After a discussion, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince suggested moving forward with the ordinance process, which requires three “readings.” The first reading acts as an official announcement of an ordinance change, the second reading requires a public hearing and the third has a formal vote by the council take place.

Opioid settlement

Another item on Monday’s agenda was related to how a pending settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors may impact the city. Earlier this month, an agreement was reached between the state of Minnesota, cities and counties on how to distribute the state’s share of a pending $26 billion national settlement agreement.

The state is expected to receive nearly $300 million from the settlement. However, the city itself won’t be eligible for any direct payment, as eligible cities must have a population of more than 30,000.

Beltrami County is expected to receive dollars from the settlement, though.

In his comments, Prince said he was frustrated by the distribution formula.

“There’s a lot of pain in the city of Bemidji, and I’m looking at this going ‘we’re totally reliant on the county working with us,’” Prince said. “And the only mechanism we have is a one year meeting. It feels like it’s a one size fits all model, and Bemidji is pretty unique relative to other communities our size.

“At the same time, I'm a realist, and I understand what’s being said. That if we don’t sign off on this, there are grant opportunities we can miss out on, and then we’re not doing our community any benefit either.”

The council is expected to take formal action on whether or not to participate in the settlement by the end of the month.

Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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