A Grand Forks family entertainment center is set to serve alcohol -- with a waist-high restriction.

Grand Forks City Council members on Monday voted 6-1 to approve a liquor license for Northern Air Family Fun Center, where staff plan to serve beer and wine in a first-floor dining area and a second-floor area that encompasses nine stalls for ax-throwing, an up-and-coming pastime that puts a woodsy spin on bar mainstays like darts. Ward 2 Council member Katie Dachtler was the lone “nay” vote on the license.

Proponents of the move, including Mayor Mike Brown and representatives from the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed to the value of the center as an expanding business, especially one that could help attract tourists or keep young professionals in town.

Opponents worried about adding another avenue through which children could be exposed to alcohol. Cynthia Shabb, a Grand Forks Public Schools board member who told council members via email last week that she opposes the license, said she was inundated with calls, texts and emails on Monday after the Herald published an article noting her opposition. Shabb said one woman told her that she was worried about the lack of places in Grand Forks where people in recovery or on probation for a DUI could go.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

Council members also voted 5-2 to require the center to build a half-height wall around the first-floor dining area where Northern Air patrons could drink city-sanctioned beer and wine.

The wall vote came after Ward 7 council member Ken Vein mulled tweaks to the times the center serves alcohol, or when it allows minors or people younger than 21 into the upstairs area with alcohol and ax-throwing. Other establishments have half-height walls around areas with beer and wine service, he said.

“It’s a form of separation that I think would make sense in this location,” Vein said.

Dachtler and Ward 1 council member Danny Weigel both voted against the wall stipulation.

“I feel like we’re telling Mr. Lee how to run his business, and I don’t like that,” Weigel said. He pointed to other businesses that have fewer restrictions on when and where alcohol is consumed than Northern Air. “Are we going to go to these other businesses and make them build a half-wall and not allow alcohol to go out?”

Northern Air Co-owner Bryan Lee said he’d be OK with restricting the upstairs beer, wine and ax-throwing area to people 18 and older after, say, 9 p.m., but no council member asked -- or moved to require -- the business to do so. The owners’ current plan is to only allow those 13 and older to throw an ax, and patrons younger than 18 must have a parent or guardian participate.

Adding beer and wine service is part of a broader effort to expand the center’s appeal, which also means installing several televisions, the ax-throwing targets, and the kitchen. Parents reportedly told Northern Air staff that they’d enjoy attractions for older children and adults.

“I think everybody is trying to make this into something way, way bigger than it is,” Lee said. “We’re just trying to do something that every other business in town that sells alcohol with food is able to do.”

Lee said that 103 of the 128 member establishments of the World Axe Throwing League serve alcohol, half of the remaining 25 are working to do so, and all allow minors.

He also said he worked in a residential treatment facility for 10 years and has first-hand knowledge of children grappling with abuse and addiction.

“We didn’t open this place so that we could help create them,” Lee said. “We opened this place so that we could allow kids to have an outlet for something else that’s fun and active.”

Northern Air’s liquor license application first went before council members in September. It pinged between the Council and the Committee of the Whole, a body comprised of council members that gives preliminary consideration to city business, for weeks as council members went back and forth over the merits of mixing alcohol into a family-centered establishment, the precedent that might be set by considering the center’s kitchen and dining area a restaurant, and the combination of alcohol and ax-throwing.

City Attorney Howard Swanson said the City Council has no obligation to issue or reissue a liquor license.