The Park Rapids City Council had a special workshop Tuesday to discuss whether to continue offering license agreements to downtown bars and restaurants to have curbside alfresco seating.
The city offered a similar deal in 2020 to help businesses struggling with restrictions on indoor dining and seating density, arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Administrator Angel Weasner proposed offering the same license agreement this year, effective from May 1 to Oct. 31. However, council members noted that if Gov. Tim Walz withdraws his emergency executive orders, the ability to serve alcohol in a public right-of-way will go with them.
Molly Luther, owner of the Good Life Cafe, urged the council to make this very clear to business owners interested in applying for an alfresco license.
“It would be very awkward with customers to not be able to serve alcohol under the tent,” she said. “Last year, as this all was evolving, if there wasn’t going to be alcohol allowed under the tent, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Luther explained that, when the cafe is busy, “It’s just very hard … to explain to everyone why, if you’re going to order a drink, you can’t sit in this section; you’ve got to sit in this section. If I knew going into it, from an operational perspective, that we wouldn’t be able to have alcohol, I’m not sure that I’d get it.”
Weasner said the state’s normal ban on serving alcohol in a roadway is not in the city’s power to change, and temporary liquor licenses for street events can only be granted to nonprofit organizations.
Council member Liz Stone said she would like to see alfresco dining with alcohol service permitted permanently. She described last year’s experiment as a nice addition to Main Avenue that gave the downtown area a “festive vibe” and could draw people to the area.
Council member Tom Conway suggested ways to make such an arrangement permanent, like barricading part of the street against vehicle traffic and vacating the right-of-way, similar to a district in Council Bluffs, Iowa. However, he admitted this could hurt businesses other than restaurants.
Luther added that such a pedestrian area would only benefit restaurants directly fronting it.
Discussion also touched on Minnesota cities, such as Hopkins, Wayzata, White Bear Lake and Duluth, that have established either permanent or seasonal, non-alcoholic, open-air dining areas.
Council member Erika Randall suggested discussing these ideas at a workshop about potential ordnance changes for 2022.
Luther stressed the importance of setting expectations by being consistent from year to year.
“This needs to be reliable so that they know they can count on it as a destination feature,” she said. “I think if it’s a permanent change, you’d see people making a bigger investment,” for example, in improving their alfresco dining spaces.
Since the discussion was part of a workshop, no official action was taken. However, Weasner observed an apparent consensus on the council and said she will bring a resolution about alfresco dining to the council’s next meeting.