Bemidji City Council continues discussion, hears public feedback on outdoor dining
Public feedback regarding outdoor dining and possible effects to downtown parking and safety took center stage at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
BEMIDJI — Public feedback regarding outdoor dining and possible effects to downtown parking and safety took center stage at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Following the first reading of a series of ordinance amendments at its Jan. 3 meeting , the council held a public hearing to gain feedback from community members and business owners and allow for a more in-depth reading of the policies.
Dave Smith, co-owner of MJB Home Center in downtown Bemidji, expressed support for more outdoor dining space but disapproved of expanding such areas into public streets and affecting parking availability.
“Parking is one of the biggest deterrents to having a business downtown and particularly in the summer, it’s extremely difficult,” Smith said during the public hearing.
Four restaurants share the block where MJB is located and if each restaurant reserved three parking spots for outdoor dining, Smith detailed that half of the block’s parking would be taken up.
Scott Turn, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce assistant director, recognized that not everyone would directly benefit from an outdoor dining expansion, but that a resulting sense of tourism would convince people to continue investing in downtown businesses.
Referencing previous council action in summer 2020 when restaurants were allowed to serve outdoors in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Turn posed a question, “Are we prepared, if there is another shutdown, to let these businesses and restaurants adapt, another thing that will happen with outdoor dining should something change at the state level?”
Other attendees spoke to the council, who also presented several letters expressing a mix of support and disapproval of the proposed amendments.
During council discussion, Ward 4 Councilmember Emelie Rivera referenced proposed 150-foot and 300-foot buffer zones, the residents and renters in which would receive notice of outdoor dining from permittees.
With regards to a map illustrating Bar 209, Hard Times, Tutto Bene, Keg N’ Cork and Brigid’s Pub, Rivera mentioned, “I see real benefit in going with the 300-foot buffer because it has an overlap space and may not necessarily impact that many more renters. But those renters still have to navigate and find parking for their daily needs.”
Regarding safety, City Engineer Craig Gray posed the question of whether or not the city would follow Traffic Safety Crash Standards, making use of barriers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that the council seemingly agreed were eyesores.
“Other communities like Bemidji don’t use these. They may use wooden fencing or some other barrier they choose,” Gray detailed. “Especially on low volume roads, we want it to look nice and take the risk by allowing businesses to create whatever walls they want to have.”
Though not required, the MnDOT barriers would very likely be implemented following a vehicle accident or other occurrence.
Mayor Jorge Prince expressed concern about the upfront cost of additional barriers should a restaurant revoke its outdoor dining capacity.
“If this is greenlit, it’s a bit of an experiment. You could get two or three years down the road and the restaurants could say, ‘we tried it and it doesn’t really work out for us,'" Prince said. “The city fronted all this money for these barriers and now we own them all.”
Gray referenced an $18,000 barrier rental cost from the past two years for existing barriers in the city, covering 500 lineal feet at $36 a lineal foot. A $60 per foot cost to buy the same footage would cost $30,000.
Regarding a recoup of cost from liquor licenses versus the loss of downtown parking, City Attorney Alan Felix emphasized license costs being set based on what it costs the city to administer the license in terms of administrative time and law enforcement involvement in alcohol-related incidents.
“The cost of the city in terms of loss of parking is something we’ve never looked into (regarding) license fees,” Felix mentioned. “I suppose you could, but what cost is appropriate? I’m not quite sure.”
To allow more time for reflection and public input, the council voted to hold another public hearing and reading of the amendments at its Feb. 7 meeting.
Other business included discussion on a $1.7 million street reconstruction project to address 10th Street NE, Dewey Avenue NE, Ridgeway Avenue NW and Spruce Street NW.
The council unanimously approved the complete reconstruction of Dewey, 10th and Ridgeway beginning in May with anticipated completion in September. A section of the storm sewer main for Spruce Street will also be upgraded.
The full meeting can be viewed on the city’s website .