North St. Paul bars can stay open on Sundays for a year

A VFW post commander defends his right to wet Sundays.

A VFW post commander defends his right to wet Sundays.

After a long, dramatic City Council meeting last night, North St. Paul bar owners and patrons emerged with mixed feelings.

The town's watering holes are still being threatened with closure on Sundays due to the rediscovery of a long-forgotten city ordinance. But they will have a year to figure out what to do next.

North St. Paul police chief Tom Lauth realized he had a problem on his hands last year when reviewing the city's Sunday license ordinance. According to the forgotten law, bars need to have restaurant seating for 100, plus make 50 percent of their revenue from food in order to sell on Sunday--in short, they must be restaurants. Since much of the fare in North St. Paul bars falls into the "Slim Jim" family, there wasn't a whole lot the owners could do when Lauth pointed this out. There were rumors they could be shut on Sundays as early as July.

Last night, the City Council met to vote on an amended ordinance that would pare down the old law's restrictiveness but would nonetheless require the bars become more restaurant-like. Over 100 angry bikers, veterans, and everyday drinkers packed the hearing room to speak on behalf of bars that would be impacted, like the American Legion, the VFW, the Polar Lounge, and Neurmann's, one of the oldest bars in the state. Some spoke of lost tax revenue and Sunday fundraiser donations; others insisted the old ordinance was superseded by yet another, more lax license law from 2003.

Clearly feeling embattled, the council at one point cut off public comment and actually had a representative from the Minnesota Beer Activists removed by police when he insisted on speaking.

"It was pretty funny actually," says Andy Schmitt of his forced exodus. "There were a lot of PO'd people."

A packed city council chamber.

A packed city council chamber.

Ultimately, the council passed new language for Sunday sales requiring the bar to have 30 seats, not 100. Seating no longer has to be completely separate from the bar, nor does the establishment have to get 50 percent of its revenue from food. They also agreed to give the bars a year to come into compliance--the deadline is July 1, 2012. The council is also going to form a small committee, including bar owners, to parse out the language of future tweaks to the ordinance.

Mike Brown, the owner of Neumann's, hopes to sit on that committee, but says he still left feeling frustrated last night.

"In the economy we have right now, do we need to be spending thousands of dollars on fryers and grills if that's not what we want for our restaurant?" he says.

Although he's not sure yet what adjustments he'll have to make to come into compliance, he's at least grateful for the extra year's time.

"I invite everybody," he laughs wryly.