As co-owner of two neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis, I wish to call voters’ attention to a Nov. 6 ballot question for residents of Minneapolis.

At issue are City Charter restrictions that produce an unfair playing field. The ballot question asks voters whether they wish to eliminate the rule that has created this situation. A yes vote on City Question 1 does this.

Here’s the problem: If a restaurant is located in a neighborhood outside of downtown Minneapolis or in other areas where there is not considerable commercial space surrounding them, they cannot currently seek a liquor license to serve cocktails because of a City Charter rule that requires them to be within at least 7 contiguous commercial acres. (Seven acres is almost 61 standard city lots.)

There is a way around the charter rule, but it is untenable for smaller places. A restaurant can lobby the state to have its property exempted from the 7-acre rule. This is a lengthy and expensive process that can take up to $20,000 for a lobbyist and up to a year and half.

A perfect example of this unfairness in action is at 54th Street and Penn. Newly opened Colita can serve cocktails, while Red Wagon Pizza cannot because it may not have the time or resources. Economically, this is an uneven playing field and is at odds with the vision of a walkable city with vibrant retail nodes. I may have to drive to a restaurant that can serve cocktails rather than walk to a spot in my very own neighborhood.

To date, 10 pre-emptions have been granted by the state. In the last legislative cycle, four restaurant properties were granted a pre-emption from the 7-acre rule. All were granted with little fanfare.

Also in the last legislative session, bills were introduced in the House and Senate stating, “Notwithstanding any other law, a city charter may not restrict the ability of a city to issue an intoxicating liquor license otherwise in compliance with applicable law.” While it did not move forward, it is clear that the state does not want to be in the business of regulating city liquor licenses. City business should be governed by the city, not the state Legislature.

In fact, this year’s ballot initiative was started by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which voted unanimously to place the matter before voters this November. The city’s Business Licensing Department supports the measure, as do the mayor, several City Council members and many neighborhood organizations. A group called Citizens for a Modern Minneapolis has been formed to educate voters to support the ballot measure (yeson1mpls.com).

If this initiative passes, existing rules would still apply to the enforcement of standards for any establishment with a liquor license. Restaurants would still need to go through the rigorous process of seeking a liquor license that must be renewed annually and be regulated by the city. In recent years the city has beefed up its ability to enforce the existing ordinance and work with so-called “bad actors” who risk losing their license.

Notably, no complaints have been heard by the licensing department about the 10 pre-empted locations.

Small businesses are vital to a vibrant city. Local restaurants add to vitality all of our neighborhoods. As an owner of two small neighborhood restaurants, I respectfully ask voters to support the places we love by modernizing laws to allow for equal access to obtaining a liquor license.

 

Steven Brown is executive chef/co-owner of Tilia and St. Genevieve and chairman of Citizens for a Modern Minneapolis.