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Akeley opposes off-sale liquor bill

A resolution by the City of Akeley to "not support the passing of a bill in the Legislature authorizing the issuance of an off-sale license to the S & H Retail/Red River Event Center" narrowly passed at the special meeting Thursday night.

Council member Bobbie Wosika made the motion and council member Billy Krotzer seconded it. Council members Dan Riggs and Margaret Bond-Vorel voted against the motion.

Mayor Brian Hitchcock, whose wife Lacey Hitchcock is the Akeley Municipal Liquor Store manager, was the tie-breaker, stating he had checked with both city attorney Steve Bolton and the League of Minnesota Cities and when asked by an audience member about conflict of interest, he said while he abstained from voting, he is allowed to break a tie.

The motion to not support the bill was made after Bond-Vorel said she came to the meeting with an open mind and undecided how she would vote. Input from the audience led her to decide in favor of the event center. A motion by Riggs and seconded by Bond-Vorel in favor of authorizing the off-sale license failed with a 2-2 vote.

The city plans to notify the League of Minnesota Cities of their resolution and see what can be done to try to stop the bill from becoming law.

Audience members on both sides

More than 30 people attended the special meeting, speaking out on the pros and cons of the issue.

A petition with 139 signatures supporting the bill that would grant an off-sale liquor license was presented to the council. Advantages include bringing more business to town, having more parking in that area for big vehicles and that the community need to support the event center because it will be giving back to the community.

Disadvantages include setting a precedent for other communities all across the state if the bill passes, possible loss of income for the city, loss of employees or even losing the municipal liquor store.

Sen. Utke wrote bill

State Sen. Paul Utke supports passage of the bill in the state Legislature.

"I had the bill drafted because they (owners) first contacted me," he said, in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "They've got a little mixed message going with some for and some against. I just hope they look forward. In Park Rapids, we went from one liquor store to three — two outside the city limits — but the city has continued to grow and do very well. I think they'll find that it's an asset to their community."

He said that both the House and Senate have "dropped their bill in."

"The companion bills are the same thing. They just have to go through both bodies," he said. "If everything passes, it goes off to the governor for signature to be signed into law."

Utke said the fact that the City of Akeley made a resolution against it may not change the outcome of the legislation.

When asked if there is any appeal process for the city if the bill is passed, Utke said "If it gets passed and signed, then it's in law."

As for how long the decision on the bill might take, Utke said his best estimate is between two weeks and a month.

"We're hoping it won't take too long, but being this is the first week of session a lot of the committees haven't even fired up yet," he said.

"I know that our plan is to do it as a stand-alone bill, and we're hoping the House does the same, and then it can move faster. It's a bill where precedent has been set previously. Isle did the same thing."

History of the license application

In action deemed "illegal" by city attorney Steve Bolton, an off-sale application for the event center was signed by both township and county officials without approval by the City of Akeley. Minnesota Statute requires city consent when establishments seek a liquor license within one mile of the boundary of a city with a municipal liquor store established before Aug. 1, 1991.

After the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division denied the off-sale part of the application, event center owners contacted Utke and the bill was put into motion.

Utke said that while he has received feedback that a number of people are supporting the event center as an asset to the community, he realizes not everyone in Akeley is in favor of the bill. "People are afraid this opens a can of worms to have another off-sale facility within one mile of these smaller facilities, but I think this one is an exception because it does follow something that was already done," he said.

Sara Halik, one of the event center owners, clarified after Thursday's meeting that Red River Liquor Company is the name for the part of the business related to off-sale, while the Red River Event Center is the name for the other part of the business. Both are part of S & H Retail which is listed on documents discussed at an earlier meeting.