A committee of Grand Forks leaders voted 4-1 on Monday night to advance a liquor license application at the Northern Air Family Fun Center. The move sets up a full City Council vote on the matter next week — where cultural concerns over young people and alcohol may once again seize the political spotlight.
Council member Katie Dachtler was the lone dissenting vote. Members Sandi Marshall and Ken Vein were absent.
If the license is granted, owners at Northern Air say their current plans are to serve beer and wine — not liquor — at two select places in their facility: upstairs, near a soon-to-come ax-throwing attraction, and in a dining area downstairs. Bryan Lee, a co-owner of the facility, stressed that alcohol will be strictly limited to only those areas — and that the ax-throwing area will also be tightly monitored, age-restricted and no more dangerous than a game of darts.
“I know there’s been a lot of misinformation out there about ax-throwing and alcohol. And I’ll say it again: It will be my lowest liability in the whole place,” said Lee. “Which is shocking, but it is controlled. There’s lots of other places that have done this.”
Lee stressed, for example, that no one under 13 years of age would be allowed at the ax-throwing attraction, and that youths would only be allowed during a scheduled session with a chaperone.
Lee did not return a request for comment placed with a staff member at Northern Air on Tuesday afternoon.
Northern Air opened as a trampoline park in 2013, and has since expanded to include an arcade, inflatables, laser tag and a “virtual reality system,” according to a letter submitted to city leaders by business co-owners.
“Comments we hear from parents, especially those that drive some distance, is (they) would enjoy something for older children and adults to do,” the letter reads, mentioning new televisions, the ax-throwing area, a new kitchen and alcohol service. “We have no intention of letting these new attractions deter us from our obligation to provide the best experience possible for our young customers.”
But some council members still harbored misgivings. The liquor license application was scheduled for a full City Council vote last week, until member Marshall expressed concerns that beer and wine service could leave underage guests in close proximity to alcohol consumption. Those worries were echoed again on Monday evening.
“I do still have concerns about the openness of the facility,” Dachtler said, noting that the downstairs dining area, where alcohol could be served, did not appear to be clearly separated from the rest of the facility. She also wondered about the effect alcohol service could have on young guests, invoking the community’s “horrible privilege” of holding a high rate of children in foster care as a result of drug and alcohol offenses. “I know the nature of kids, and I know the nature of young adults, and in this current culture of alcohol we have in North Dakota, in the Midwest, we set our kids up to fail.”
As the council discussed limiting alcohol service to one secluded part of the building, leaders appeared to ponder what it would mean to refuse or significantly amend the application. After all, if owners are meeting local codes, then why should the council stand in their way? Multiple times, council members suggested that it might be time to revise the city’s approach to issuing licenses to more effectively manage cases like Northern Air’s.
“If we want to have a discussion, because we don’t think (current regulations are) right, then I think we can have that discussion on the parameters of the liquor license,” City Council member Danny Weigel said after the meeting. “But to say they shouldn’t have it because of this, even though they meet our current ordinances, would be unjust.”
Given the four votes in support of the item, the full council’s final vote on Monday is expected to approve the liquor license.
“I would guess that the four people that supported it tonight will support it on Monday, just based on the pragmatic facts,” City Council President Dana Sande said. “They qualify as a restaurant. Because they qualify as a restaurant, they’re entitled to a liquor license.”