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Fargo liquor board backs change to allow more standalone bars

FARGO -- Fargo is one step closer to allowing more standalone bars to open up more often.

The city's liquor control board unanimously recommended easing the limits on Class Z liquor licenses -- which allow unrestricted on-sale with no food sale requirements.

The City Commission must sign off on the plan and could discuss the issue Monday, but City Commissioner Brad Wimmer, the liquor board member who made the recommendation, said there is no hurry to discuss the topic at the commission level.

Fargo has historically had a set number of licenses for standalone bars. It has eight Class A licenses, which allow for unrestricted on-sale, and 22 Class AB licenses, which permit on- and off-sale. Those licenses are all owned and considered the property of the license holder.

In 2005, the city created four Class Z licenses, which also allow for unrestricted on-sale -- though a Class Z license isn't owned by its holder.

To allow for growth, the city set a rule that a new Class Z license will be available when Fargo's population hit 100,000, with another added for each additional 10,000 people. City leaders at the time decided unofficially to use the 10-year U.S. census as the guideline.

By 2010, Fargo had reached 100,000 people, and Mahoney's Bar and Grill opened downtown with a fifth Z license. But some debate arose last month when three businesses applied for the one Z license that was vacated when Mahoney's closed in July.

On Wednesday, liquor board members agreed 10 years is too long to wait and 10,000 people might be too steep of a trigger point to issue new Class Z licenses.

Mayor Dennis Walaker, a liquor board member, said he's fine with a new license per 10,000, "but being tied to the U.S. census doesn't make a lot of sense."

Wimmer said city law should make it clearer that the City Commission, not the national census, will decide when the trigger point has been reached. The city's planning department does its own census work every year and that data could be referenced, Walaker said.

Wimmer also said he'd like to add Class Z licenses more often than for each additional 10,000 people, but he didn't specify how low he'd like to set the bar.

Research from city staff showed other cities in the region have smaller population triggers. In Bismarck, a new standalone bar license is added for every 2,500 people. In Minot it's at every 1,500 people.

Police Chief Keith Ternes, also on the liquor board, said it's clear, based on the research, that Fargo has "significantly more stringent" liquor laws.

"But I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing from a public safety point of view," he said. "It allows us to maintain some management and control."

Wimmer also moved that commissioners grant a Class Z license to all three businesses vying for the license Mahoney's held. The commission will take up that issue Monday.

Ternes said he didn't have "any heartburn" about approving all three licenses but made reference to past city discussions, saying perhaps now is time to look at overhauling the city's complicated liquor licensing system.

"It'll be a beast, but it's certainly becoming necessary," Ternes said.