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Our view: Don't limit tourism over alcohol worry

A member of the Grand Forks City Council hopes to encourage the city to support more alcohol-free events. Katie Dacthler says it’s not about laws or ordinances, but about making Grand Forks a welcoming community for everyone while dissuading alcohol use.

Public Health Director Debbie Swanson agrees.

In a story published in the Herald over the weekend, Dachtler and Swanson said it’s difficult to think of many alcohol-free events that are held in the city.

“I think that kind of speaks volumes to what we support, as a community,” Swanson said in a recent Herald report.

There’s a reason for it: Events that don’t serve alcohol generally aren’t among the most popular events held the city. Meanwhile, the events that do feature alcohol – concerts at the Ralph Engelstad Arena and Alerus Center, street dances, UND hockey and football games, racing at the local speedway – are the best draws in town. Those are the places where people congregate and, in so many cases, they are the reasons so many people visit Grand Forks.

Before it appears we are critical of Swanson and Dachtler, let’s be clear: We aren’t. Dachtler and Swanson have good intentions and their concerns deserve consideration.

We are all for events that don’t include alcohol. Family-friendly entertainment should be a focus for the community, but we believe it shouldn’t supercede the push to bring even more big events – and yes, events that include alcohol – to the city.

Dachtler draws a connection between events that feature alcohol and the city’s ongoing fight against opioid and other substance abuse.

“It’s hard for me to think that, as a city, we’re going to come in strong on the opioid crisis, which is a definite issue in our community, not other substance abuse and addiction,” she said. “Why are we not also keeping alcoholism on the front burner?”

It’s worth noting that variations of this conversation have arisen in the past. Back in 2014 and 2015, the city and UND worked to reduce binge drinking. That led to a ban on “extreme drink specials” and also the end of Springfest – the annual gathering in University Park that catered to college-aged students.

Yet there is a big difference between binge drinking and gatherings that include alcohol which is, we note, perfectly legal for those 21 and older. There also is a big difference between alcoholism and enjoying a beer at a concert along with 15,000 others, many of whom will spend the night in a local hotel and eat at a local restaurant.

And as the region works to bring more visitors to Greater Grand Forks, it’s important to not limit any of these lucrative opportunities.

Grand Forks’ chief source of tourism, Canadian shoppers, has drastically fallen in recent years thanks to a swing in the U.S.-Canada exchange rate. The way forward now must be experiential tourism, since coaxing visitors here in the future will depend as much on things to do as on things to buy.

And that, we are convinced, means more concerts, more wine walks, more car racing – more high-draw events.