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Bemidji, Beltrami County contemplate bar times

Bemidji city councilors and Beltrami County commissioners agreed Monday evening that no matter which stance prevails, both the city and the county should have the same bar closing time.

The two governmental bodies met in a rare joint session at City Hall to discuss their viewpoints on bar closing times.

The Bemidji City Council in December voted 4-3 to allow city bars the option of serving alcohol one hour later, until 2 a.m.

Meanwhile, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners undertook its own ordinance process that would prohibit county bars from serving alcohol past 1 a.m. The county process is still ongoing. The public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 1.

Elected officials from both the city and county said they did not want to have bar patrons leaving county bars at 1 a.m. to rush to get to a city bar that could be open until 2 a.m.

"I really believe we're going to have to be together on this," said Quentin Fairbanks, a Beltrami County commissioner.

All five Beltrami County commissioners were unanimous in their opposition to a 2 a.m. bar closing.

The City Council is split, but the tally is not officially on record. The council last month voted 4-3 to change the bar closing time, but there now are three new council members, who all spoke against a later bar closing time.

No formal votes were taken.

Dave Larson, the city's new mayor, who suggested the joint meeting, said he has considered what the purpose is of city and county government.

"I believe it boils down to this: We are responsible for the safety, health and well-being of those people that we represent," he said. "In view of that, I don't find any compelling logic or rationale to allow me to be in favor of this (later bar closing)."

City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen was perhaps the most vocal in his support of the later bar closing time, saying workers no longer all work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some get off at 10 p.m., 11 p.m., or even after midnight.

"Time is irrelevant," he said. "Bemidji is a 24-hour society. Time is just a number on a clock."

Councilor Ron Johnson said the later bar closing time would be an economic development tool as other regional centers, such as St. Cloud, Moorhead and Detroit Lakes, are competition for conventions and events. And they all have a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

"It is an economic thing," he said.

But county commissioners, and some city councilors, were not sold.

Rita Albrecht, the new councilor representing Ward 4, said she was not convinced of the validity of the arguments that a later bar closing time would attract businesses or spur economic development.

"I think we need to think about what is best for the community," she said.

Those opposed often cited the positions of Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp and Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson, who are against the later bar times.

Further, Beltrami County commissioners referenced information received from Mary Marchel, the Beltrami County director of human services and public health. Marchel reported that alcohol issues impact programming needs for child protection, child welfare, adult mental health, children's mental health, chemical dependence assessments, detox, in-home family support services and home care and family health.

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

He emphasized the need to continue the county process to hear from constituents on whether they want a later bar closing time.

Jack Frost, a county commissioner who took part in the meeting via telephone, said he saw parallels between the bar closing issue and the smoking ban debate, which ended with Beltrami County implementing a countywide smoking ban in public buildings.

Nonsmoking venues felt they had the potential of losing business to competitors that allowed smoking unless there was a level playing field, he said.

Frost wondered whether a bar owner would remain open until only 1 a.m. if competitors were opting to stay open until 2 a.m.

"It might put them at a distinct competitive disadvantage," he said.

Waldhausen said he spoke with the police chiefs in Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids and Grand Rapids, who all said there was no increase in costs and they had no problems in their cities due to establishments that were open later.

"Why would Bemidji be different? What makes us different?" he said. "If it works in the majority of other areas, I wish somebody would tell me why it won't work here."

He also cited a study that examined the impact of extended bar closing times on police stops of drivers suspected of driving under the influence. The study, conducted in 2007, looked at DUI stops in Minnesota.

The nine-page study concluded there was a significant increase in DUI stops following a later bar closing time, but that was attributed to increased binge-drinking, more out-of-state drinkers and drivers and changes in police practice.

The study said data suggested there were no significant differences in the characteristics of individuals stopped by police for DUI prior to or after the later bar closing time. Similarly, there was no significant difference in drivers' blood-alcohol levels.

"This pattern of results suggested that the city did not see a substantial increase in drinking and driving," the study stated.

Frost, though, said he believed this community is different than others.

"Bemidji has a unique and distinct demographic that does not compare to Alexandria or Detroit Lakes," he said.

Rather, he, too, said he would prefer to listen to the advice of the police chief and sheriff.

Police Chief Johnson said the police chiefs that Waldhausen spoke to in Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids do not work in cities that have later bar closing times. They have area bars, located outside the city limits, that are open until 2 a.m.

The meeting was friendly. Participants more often stated their positions or provided research to back those positions up rather than getting into actual back-and-forth debate. Everyone who attended the meeting, including members of the pubic, was invited to speak.

The county board still plans to hold its public hearing next month.

City Attorney Al Felix said the City Council would have to vote to rescind its December motion, if it wanted to continue with a 1 a.m. bar closing time (the current ordinance allowing for a 2 a.m. time does not take effect until Feb. 24).

Several participants said it was unfortunate the council and county board did not meet last year, before the council took action.

But all seemed to agree that the public was better served by having a consistent bar closing time throughout the county.

Waldhausen did wonder, though, whether the county board was also going to have similar discussions with Blackduck, Funkley and Wilton, which also could allow bars to remain open until 2 a.m.