Staff and officials at Grand Forks City Hall are set to review the city’s alcohol regulations after receiving a pair of requests to loosen them.

City Council members on Monday asked city staff to set up a committee that would look at the restrictions the city puts on bars, restaurants and other businesses that serve alcohol. The city has done a similar review every few years.

This year’s review is partly because Bryan Lee, co-owner of Northern Air Family Fun Center, wants to be able to regularly allow minors in an upstairs ax-throwing area that also has beer and wine service. Currently, the city can issue a temporary permit for, say, a wedding reception, but that wouldn’t apply to day-to-day operations.

One of Lee’s suggestions is to change the definition of a restaurant in such a way that his business would qualify as one. Northern Air has an ice cream shop, but that doesn’t cut it as far as city code is concerned. Lee said the COVID-19 pandemic prompted him to put on hold plans to install a full-fledged kitchen. Another idea would deem a business that contracts out its food service a restaurant.

Both are legally and logistically tricky: what happens if someone orders a to-go beer from a contracted restaurant? How long would the change last? What other businesses might follow suit and how might they do so? And what about the public health implications?

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“I don’t want to have to go and inspect every catered location in town if the term ‘restaurant’ is changed,” Javin Bedard, an environmental health supervisor at Grand Forks Public Health, told council members on Monday in an attempt to caution them against unintended consequences of a new definition. He also worried about the risk of “normalizing” alcohol consumption for minors and reinforcing the notion that alcohol is necessary to have fun.

The interim plan is for Mayor Brandon Bochenski to sign an emergency order that would allow Lee to have minor patrons at the ax-throwing spot. City Administrator Todd Feland said on Monday night that city administrators are still determining how to accomplish that, and, in a separate call with the Herald, Lee stressed that his intention is to allow families and young people to take part, not to serve alcohol to underage patrons.

Lee said that, without the ax-throwing and bar service, his business would probably not still exist. Allowing him to have minors in that spot would be a “definite help,” he told the Herald.

The planned committee is also partly the result of a request by a variety of Grand Forks-area nonprofits and a few businesses to let bars and restaurants allow patrons 21 and older gamble there within a specially designated area. Currently, only businesses that predominantly serve alcohol are allowed to host, say, a blackjack table. The change would allow businesses with “Class 4” licenses -- restaurants that have approximately a 60/40 food/alcohol split -- to do the same. The move could help businesses struggling to bolster their revenue during the pandemic and make new spots for nonprofits that could benefit from the revenue those games generate.

“It’s an opportunity for us to increase our fundraising,” Brad Lucke, president of the Grand Forks Youth Hockey Association, told the Herald. Lucke spoke in favor of the change at Monday’s council meeting.

The charitable gaming change is less thorny than the one with Northern Air in mind, but both are set to presumably come up during the committee’s talks. Feland said he expects the gaming change to be OK'd relatively swiftly.

Beyond both of those issues, in the background is a question that’s popped up occasionally at City Hall: how many of the changes city leaders have instituted during the pandemic should stick around once the virus subsides? Former Mayor Mike Brown used his emergency powers to allow businesses with certain liquor licenses to sell to-go beer and cocktails in an effort to keep them financially afloat.

“We always knew that, coming out of this pandemic, some of these new business models -- maybe some should continue on,” Feland told council members. “I think it’s proven out people are responsible, and it’s gone really well.”

In related news, council members, acting as the Grand Forks Committee of the Whole:

  • Tentatively approved a plan to revamp the site of the now-closed El Roco bar and grill. Via the city and North Dakota’s “Renaissance Zone” program, Cole Creek, LLC submitted an application for a five-year, 100% exemption on the new property taxes it would pay after installing commercial storefronts and, perhaps, a restaurant space in the old nightlife mainstay. City leaders recently updated the map of Renaissance Zones in Grand Forks to include the property occupied by the former bar.
  • OK'd a $316,800 plan to install eight “light pillars” along North Third Street in downtown Grand Forks. City leaders in September approved a plan to install 10 similar pillars along DeMers Avenue after tabling it at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each pillar costs $39,600, which means a total expense of $712,800 from the city.