There’s something a little funny about Bemidji. If you’ve always lived in Minnesota, you may not even know that it’s an anomaly. But to me, something seems inherently wrong about the fact that our municipality owns and operates two downtown liquor stores.
As I understand it, there may have been some uproar about the city-council-owned liquor stores when First City Liquor was built, but I hadn’t yet moved to Bemidji and wasn’t aware of it. By the time I learned that the municipality owns the stores, I had even shopped in one without realizing it was government-owned.
The idea of a city owning a business -- let alone a liquor store -- is a rare phenomenon. After the end of prohibition in 1933, the newly-ratified 21st amendment gave states the power to regulate sales of alcohol. Thus, today we see a diversity of approaches to liquor sales across the country.
Growing up in Arizona, where liquor is deregulated and privatized, my family could purchase liquor, beer, and wine all in the local grocery store. This is unheard of in Minnesota. Other states went for state-owned liquor stores. The Minnesota state legislature uniquely gave small municipalities the ability to sell liquor if they so choose.
This brings us to First City Liquor and Lakeview Liquor, the two city-council-run liquor stores in Bemidji. According to their website, the revenue goes toward lowering property taxes, paying for parks and trails, and subsidizing city projects.
At first glance, this narrative makes sense. We can imagine that conversation in 1933: someone smoking a cigar and rocking a fedora says, “Look, the people are gonna booze either way. We might as well make a buck off it.” And if the city council is making a buck off it, they might as well reinvest our beer money into the community. Right?
But I have a couple of problems with this, and I’m not sure I want my city council collecting off my tab. The reasoning is threefold.
First of all, there is no arguing that alcohol adversely affects human health -- something which is subsidized, mind you, by our state government. Whether one drinks in moderation or not, alcohol degrades liver function, acts as a depressant, impairs judgment and costs lives in car accidents.
According to the CDC, every 50 minutes someone in the United States dies from a preventable motor vehicle accident in which at least one driver is alcohol-impaired. In fact, the annual cost of alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. is $44 billion. It’s no secret that alcohol is a common ingredient in abuse and violence.
Of course, the liquor behind any one of these crashes could come from a number of locations, from bars to clubs to kitchen pantries to private liquor stores, but it disappoints me that it also may have come from our city council. Our government exists, at its best, to keep society happy, healthy and functional; alcohol seems to do the opposite.
Even if great projects are funded by these sales, the idea of the city council encouraging liquor sales through advertising, specials, and deals, seems antithetical to their role. Beyond that, it seems strange that a municipality wherein so many other recreational drugs are illegal can smile and wave as they sell an equally if not more dangerous substance.
Secondly, when I lived on Irvine Avenue, I used to see police officers rolling slowly past First City Liquor, following some intoxicated person as they stumbled down the sidewalk. This was not once or twice, but a regular occasion.
What a toxic cycle the city encourages; profiting off the liquor they sell to those who suffer from alcoholism, then using tax dollars to pay for the cleanup of the problem they created. It’s wasteful and inefficient. And just a little bit uncomfortable. I know their advertisements almost always say, “Drink responsibly” at the end, but ultimately, city employees benefit when its citizens drink irresponsibly. It’s messy.
Third, the numerous and unquantifiable social cost of having municipal liquor stores is not outweighed by the financial benefits of profit. We already pay taxes, like in every other state, for things like city projects and the upkeep of trails and parks.
As aforementioned, most of the money from these sales goes to lowering property taxes. But we know who is able to own property: wealthier folks and business owners. Anyone paying rent in Bemidji isn’t benefiting; this incentive doesn’t help our entire community equally. Possibly, those who are hurt most by the presence of a liquor store are the ones who benefit least.
Additionally, we now have a municipal liquor store competing with small business owners who opened up their own liquor stores. It doesn’t quite seem like laissez-faire economics anymore when the state, which controls the regulation of alcohol, gives out DUIs, and can decide who does and doesn’t get a liquor license, also happens to profit off of liquor stores.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill. In fact, I enjoy Forest Edge wine and beer after work; I like to drink! However, I think it’s valid to acknowledge that alcohol can be toxic to human health and communities, and it feels backward that our city profits off our vices without truly redistributing those funds to making Bemidji a better place.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.