Heights considers wine/beer at small restaurants

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Northeast’s restaurants might soon get a new kind of competition from Columbia Heights, if a proposed change to the suburb’s liquor licensing ordinance goes through.

On Monday, Jan. 9 (after this Northeaster was printed), the Columbia Heights City Council will hear the second reading of an ordinance modification that would allow restaurants with as few as 25 seats to apply for a strong beer and wine license. (The ordinance previously required that a dining area seat at least 75 people.) The revision also eliminates a distance requirement that prohibits restaurants serving strong beer and wine within 300 feet of a church or school.

“Nowadays, the venue is smaller restaurants,” said Columbia Heights Community Development Director Scott Clark. “We have smaller sites in this city, and state law only requires 25 seats. Between 70 and 80 percent of Minnesota cities have adopted the state minimum. We don’t see a down side to this.”

Clark said that city staff seeks ways to bring businesses into the community, and concluded that the 75-seat minimum and school/ church distance requirement was impeding that effort. Neighboring Northeast Minneapolis “has done a good job of turning itself around, in the areas of entertainment and restaurants,” he added. “A lot of restaurants in Northeast are small venues. We’re trying to create a field of opportunity.”

The license change only affects restaurants, where at least 60 percent of their sales come from food. In a letter from the Community Development Department to the City Council, Clark wrote that both the city attorney and the police chief support the change and do not see it as a problem. The city’s EDA (Economic Development Authority) voted in favor of it, 6 to 1. City council and EDA member Tami Diehm is quoted in the Nov. 22, 2011, EDA minutes as saying that she supports the change, because small establishments are usually less troublesome than large venues.

The proposed modification was already in the works, Clark added, when the city received a letter from business owner Pat Sukhtipyaroge, asking for a strong beer and wine license for his recently-opened Royal Orchid restaurant, 4022 Central Ave. NE, which seats 50. “Having the sale of strong beers and wine, especially Singha and other oriental import beers and wine, has been an integral part to our sales [at other restaurants],” Sukhtipyaroge wrote. “Being able to offer a selection of import beers provides an enjoyable experience for our customers.”

In a Northeaster interview, Columbia Heights Gary Peterson said, “I don’t see any problem at all. It will make it [the community] a little more available.” The Royal Orchid, he added, “is not going to be a drinking establishment.”

When asked about the distance requirement, he said he favors the change because the present ordinance is too restrictive for a city of Columbia Heights’ size. “We already have charter schools on Central Avenue, right in the middle of our business district,” he said.

Council Member Bruce Nawrocki cast the dissenting vote at the EDA meeting and said he will also vote against the ordinance change at the Jan. 9 city council meeting. “Personally, I think it opens the door for a bunch of small beer joints with a lot less seating. We have enough places where you can get food and drink. I tried to get them to put a limit on such licenses that we would give out, but that didn’t go anywhere.”

The vote to modify the city’s liquor license ordinance (Ordinance No. 1605) is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9, at the 7 p.m. Columbia Heights City Council meeting at City Hall, 590 40th Ave. NE. For information, call City Manager Walter Fehst, 763-706-3608.