Later last call: Southwest bars may stay open until 2 a.m.

State law that helps downtown convention business will mean longer hours at neighborhood watering holes, too

When asked about the prospect of neighborhood bars staying open an extra hour until 2 a.m., Linden Hills resident and local musician Chris Thompson said, "It's about time. That's usually when things are starting to get fun."

On May 6, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill allowing bars statewide to stay open until 2 a.m. In the House, a separate bill sponsored by Dan Dorman, an Albert Lea Republican, does the same. It passed easily out of the House Regulated Industries Committee on a voice vote. Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he will sign the 2 a.m. bill if a portion of any new liquor taxes pay for more state and city police officers.

Two a.m. closing bills have a history of failure, in part because they picked only

specific bars. For example, last year the bill was limited to hotels statewide, and it failed partly because the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association opposed it. The group's members include non-hotel bars.

This time, because all state bars are included, the group supports the legislation. And all bars means those in Southwest's residential neighborhoods, too.

A boost for business and taxes

According to Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Minnesota is one of only five states in the nation that doesn't have the later bar-closing hours. He called a 1 a.m. closing detrimental to the city's convention business.

"If you are trying to book a convention, and the price and the venue is essentially the same, something as small as bar closings can tilt a convention away from Minneapolis," said Ortale.

However, conventioneers don't go to neighborhoods, and the bill doesn't allow cities to restrict 2 a.m. closings to their downtowns.

Chris Austin, a Kingfield resident who lives close to Westrum's Tavern, a neighborhood bar at 4415 Nicollet Ave. S., has mixed feelings about later neighborhood bar hours.

He said it's more appropriate for downtown, and although it would be good for business, it will mean people would be out later in the neighborhoods. "I don't think it's a necessity," Austin said.

However, fellow Kingfield resident Anna Voiles said that the later bar close is a good thing and might encourage people to drink more responsibly, giving them more time to wait before heading home in their cars.

"The early bar close has always encouraged people to drink more quickly -- tossing shots before hopping in their car," Voiles said.

What would bars do?

Given the opportunity, would Southwest bars stay open until 2 a.m. every night?

Kim Bartmann, owner of the Wedge's Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., and Caf Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St. in East Isles, said if the legislation passed, she'd have to keep the BLB open till 2 because her customers would demand it. "We'd almost not have a choice in the matter," Bartmann said.

She said the crowd at Cafe Barbette thins out much earlier, so she's not sure if she'd want to take advantage of the later hours there.

Bartmann said the change would probably increase sales a little bit, and pretty soon it would seem as normal as the 1 a.m. closing.

Westrum's owner Judy Westrum said her customers would also want her to stay open longer if the law passes. She said Westrum's is usually busiest at last call, so she thinks many of her customers would want to stay.

Despite that, she said she'd take the wait-and-see approach, because she doesn't want to upset neighboring residents. "As long as [customers] behave and are quiet leaving, I'll hire more bouncers for the later hours," she said.

Wendi Nauheimer, spokesperson for Dixie's Calhoun in Cedar-Isles-Dean, said the extra hour wouldn't have as much effect on them as it will on the Downtown bars. However, she said if the legislation passes, Dixie's would watch other neighborhood bars to see what they do.

Politicians' views

The 2 a.m. bar-closing bill split Minneapolis' all-DFL Senate delegation.

Among Southwest senators, Scott Dibble and Linda Berglin voted for the bill, while Jane Ranum and Wes Skoglund voted no.

In the state House, Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-62B), who represents part of the Windom neighborhood, said lobbyists from industries such as alcohol and gambling are having greater success at the legislature this year. She attributed this to the change in attitude by the Republican Party, which used to oppose the laws but no longer does.

The plan also has the virtue of raising revenues without raising tax rates, a key Republican campaign promise. Currently, the GMVCA is a $400 million-a-year business, its officials say. The state gets 6.5 percent or about $25 million from conventions, and the city gets over 3 percent, or about $13 million per year.

However, Albert Lea's Dorman warned the issue is similar to gun control and tobacco -- the mere mention of it evokes a knee-jerk reaction in some people, making them less likely to listen.

At the public hearings, he heard concerns about teen access to alcohol, the recent University of Minnesota riots and tragic stories about loved ones killed in crashes with drunk drivers. While he said the concerns are serious, they have nothing to do with bar closing times. He is working with supporters to figure out the best strategy to get it signed into law. It may be attached to another bill or proposed by itself.

Despite the fact that it can help Minneapolis, Wagenius said that she does not support legislation extending bar hours until drunk driving's repercussions are addressed.

According to Wagenius, over 600 people died on Minnesota roads in 2002, 89 more than the year before. Forty percent of the deaths were alcohol-related. In Europe, she said, the number is 20 percent.

"We in Minnesota have to confront the results of drunk driving," she said. "Deaths on the road are greatest during the late night hours. Back when Minneapolis had 100 murders, we were dubbed Murderapolis. But this issue is still under the radar screen."

Cops and city pols in favor

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak supports late bar closings, focusing on benefits to downtown.

"There have been many times over the years when I have been out on the town and wondered why my friends and I had to leave a bar before we were ready," said Rybak. "But since I became mayor there's been another important reason and that is public safety."

Rybak visited Downtown's 1st Police Precinct a few months ago, sat in on a roll call and asked what he could do to help cops keep Downtown safe. He said their response surprised him: "Try to get the bars to close later."

Rybak said that at 1 a.m., as many as 25,000 people leave Downtown nightspots at once -- some driving to city neighborhoods. Extending bar hours would expand the time that bargoers would have to filter out, reducing the mad 1 a.m. rush that fills the sidewalks.

Chief Robert Olson has opposed the 2 a.m. bar-closing legislation because in the past it was exclusive to Minneapolis.

"I was always opposed to that because it takes your suburban drunks and has them driving Downtown to get drunker," said Olson.

"If the whole state is going to close at 2 a.m., then that is no longer an issue. The impact for us is that we are going to have to readjust our schedules Downtown accordingly, because everything that we do now is predicated on the 1 a.m. closing time."

Olson believes it remains to be seen whether it will help filter out the bar crowd in a more orderly fashion, including in neighborhoods.