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Council approves 2 a.m. bar closing; Zorbaz may replace Bug-A-Boo Bay

You may soon be able to drink a little later at Alexandria bars.

And one of those places may be a Zorbaz that will be taking over Bug-A-Boo Bay.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Alexandria City Council gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that would extend the 1 a.m. bar closing time to 2 a.m.

The owners of Bug-A-Boo Bay and Garden Center (Fat Daddy's) requested the change.

The later closing was approved on a 3-1 vote with Cindy Bigger, Dave Benson and Owen Miller voting yes, Sara Carlson voting no and Elroy Frank abstaining. The ordinance must still go through a public hearing and a final reading at the next meeting before it could take effect.

The council also requested city staff to find out how the later closing time has worked in other cities and whether there are problems such as drunk driving and the added expense of extra law enforcement patrols.

If approved, the ordinance would give any of Alexandria's existing 12 beer, wine, set-ups and liquor license holders, including clubs like the Eagles and VFW, the option of applying for a state license to extend their closing time to 2 a.m.

The extra hours could be a difference-maker for Bug-A-Boo Bay, according to owner Randy Stodola.

He told the council that the restaurant has been struggling financially and that a new potential buyer, Tom Hanson, founder of the Zorbaz chain of restaurants, could take over the management of Bug-A-Boo immediately if the 2 a.m. time was approved.

Stodola said that without the later time, he'd have no choice but to close the restaurant until Hanson planned to buy it in January, which could mean the immediate loss of 60 jobs. About 20 of those workers attended the council meeting as a show of support for the change.

"It [a 2 a.m. closing time] is an important tool for us to make it in these tough times," Stodola told the council. "Without it, I'll have to close Bug-A-Boo and all the people back there will be looking for jobs."

Charlie Meyer, owner of Garden Center, told the council that the bar business is very competitive. He noted that customers start leaving Alexandria bars at 12:30 a.m. to hit bars in Osakis and West Union, which already have 2 a.m. closing times.

"We've turned into a 24-hour society," Meyer said. "This will enhance our business and help us stay competitive."

Meyer added that the later closing could also help bring in conventions to the area.

Richard Iverson, owner of an Alexandria taxi service, told the council that he supported the 2 a.m. closing because it would give him more time to bring people home safely from the bars.

Bigger said that when she first heard about the 2 a.m. bar closing request, she opposed the idea but later changed her mind after learning that so many jobs were at stake.

Mayor Dan Ness warned that it's not the council's role to help structure business transactions.

Bigger agreed, saying she understood that, and then made the motion to approve the preliminary ordinance, with the condition that staff provide more research before the next meeting.

Carlson said the council was addressing the issue backwards. She said it should get the answers it needs first, then consider a preliminary proposal and hold a public hearing to answer any concerns from the public. Later in the meeting, Carlson made a motion to set a public hearing on the issue at the next council meeting and it was approved 5-0.

Hanson told the council how the transition of Bug-A-Boo Bay to a Zorbaz would work. He said that starting tomorrow, his son, the CEO of Zorbaz, would be the on-site general manager at Bug-A-Boo Bay and that he would retain as many employees as possible. He'll serve in that capacity until the state approves the 2 a.m. liquor license and the restaurant becomes part of the Zorbaz chain. If all goes right, he said that could happen within 30 to 45 days.

Hanson said that nine Zorbaz establishments in cities about the same size of Alexandria, such as Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids and Grand Rapids, have 2 a.m. closing times and there haven't been any problems. He invited the council to check with the police in all the Zorbaz locations.

"We're excited about coming here," Hanson said.

Hanson was involved with the Zorbaz that started in Alexandria back in the mid-1980s but the restaurant closed when the building, also known as the Gang Plank, collapsed under heavy snow.

The Minnesota Legislature enacted a law in 2003 that authorized establishments to serve liquor as late as 2 a.m. unless otherwise limited by city or county regulations.

Establishments must obtain an additional license from the state and pay additional fees. The fees are placed in the state's "alcohol enforcement fund" to hire extra patrol during those hours.

In a letter to the city, Stodola listed a variety of reasons for requesting the later last call:

--Numerous workers in the area are coming off late shifts, including those from 3M, Henry's Foods, Brenton Engineering, Alexandria Extrusion, Doege Precision Machining, ITW Heartland, Central Specialties, Tastefully Simple and Donnelly Custom Manufacturing.

These shift workers, Stodola said, represent a good portion of the local workforce and should be accommodated with a later bar closing.

--The Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association has been approached by several groups and organizations that said they wouldn't bring their meetings and conventions into Minnesota unless it allowed a 2 a.m. bar closing.

--The 1 a.m. closing causes people to quickly down their last drink and then leave in swarms, Stodola said.

--48 states currently allow for a 2 a.m. closing or even later, Stodola said.

--Alexandria is in competition with many communities for tourism dollars, Stodola said. To remain competitive, it must cater to a society that is eating later and vacationing where all options are available.

The state's fee for the 2 a.m. liquor license varies from $200 to $1,000, depending on the bar's gross alcohol sales and how long it's been in business. It would cost Bug-A-Boo Bay $200 because the owners haven't sold alcoholic beverages for a full year prior to the application. Garden Center would pay the highest fee, $1,000, because it annually handles more than $500,000 in gross alcoholic beverage receipts.

In addition to the 2 a.m. bar closing request, the council dealt with many other items including an Alexandria Area Transportation Plan; a request from the Alexandria fire chief to attend an international leadership symposium; a new tobacco ordinance; Dakota Street rezoning; a proposal to designate Alexandria as a veteran-friendly Yellow Ribbon Community; engineering agreements for next year's street projects; setting salaries for the mayor and council members; building permit fee comparisons with other cities; and appointments to an arts advisory council.

Watch for stories about these items in next week's Echo Press.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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