By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - The Howard Lake City Council listened to comments from several people Tuesday during a public hearing regarding the municipal liquor store losses.
The state mandates that if a municipal liquor store experiences losses two years out of three, a public hearing must take place to obtain public input on the matter.
Last year, the liquor store recorded a total loss of $79,283, and this year, as of Sept. 30, the liquor store has lost $38,516.
More than a dozen citizens were present for the hearing, and many of them voiced their opinions, as well as asked questions.
Some of the discussion centered around sales and losses of the on-sale versus the off-sale sides of the store.
In the last few years, the on-sale side has experienced larger losses than the off-sale side, although back in 2004, both sides made about $50,000 each, according to City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp.
“That was before competition (from the new liquor store in Cokato), a bond payment (which is about $50,000 per year), and the economy took a dive,” Liquor Store Manager Aaron DeMarais said.
“As I’ve stated before,” DeMarais added, “two of those things are eventually going to go away. The bond payment will go away, and the economy will improve.”
The bond will be paid off in 2014.
City resident Shelly Reddemann told the council that he thinks the liquor store shouldn’t have stopped accepting personal checks, especially from local people.
Reddemann said that he has heard from many people around town that they are unhappy about this change, and that they no longer patronize the store because of it.
DeMarais disagreed, and said that he hasn’t noticed any drop in sales since the change took place.
Council Member Peter Zimmerman added that the store added an ATM machine to help alleviate any stress associated with the issue.
DeMarais also added that many of the bad checks were from people who live in the metro area, and “we’re not going to get that money back.”
Reddemann added, “It’s a shame locals can’t write a check and this is a municipal.”
Members of the council and the public spent some time discussing the differences between the Howard Lake Legion and the liquor store, and why the Legion tends to draw more people.
Some said the Legion’s food is a big draw, although the liquor store does offer pizza and sandwiches. Others said the Legion has many televisions while the liquor store only has one, which could be a factor for sports lovers.
DeMarais noted that the Legion doesn’t always have more patrons on any given night than the liquor store, and that some nights the liquor store does have more cars in its parking lot than the Legion.
Howard Lake resident Jim Ittel mentioned that parking may still be a factor, and that when businesses across the street from the liquor store had parking out front, that some foot traffic would cross the street and patronize the liquor store.
Howard Lake municipal store employee Jackie Decker said that she thinks the liquor store manager’s personality is one reason the store isn’t doing well.
She said that the manager argues with customers, and “we lose customers because of him.” She also added that she has worked in the bar for 30 years.
Mayor Richard Lammers told Decker that her opinions are a “personnel issue,” and that he would have to stop her comments, and redirect her to address her concerns with the liquor store committee.
Regarding any future changes at the liquor store to address losses in profit, the council said that the liquor store committee is still trying to come up with a plan, which may include cutting some hours of the on-sale side of the business.
Those changes, once approved, will not take place until after the first of the year.
Before the public hearing ended, Council Member Mike Mitchell gave a little history about the liquor store.
He said it first opened for business in 1939, and it was called the Old Log Cabin Bar.
“It was where Custer’s Supervalu (the old grocery store) is now, in half of the old hotel,” Mitchell said. “It was one of the first in the county to open, and it was the last chance to get liquor until South Dakota.”
“At one time, it made a lot of money,” Mitchell continued. “It helped pay for the expense of having our own police department.”
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• recognized the good work Eagle Scout candidate Brandon Torres did with improvements to Lake Ridge Park.
“It’s a job well done. It looks very nice,” Mitchell said.
• approved the hire of part-time bartender Jodi Zindars of Howard Lake.
• directed the city engineer to begin the background work and application procedures to apply for two trail grant opportunities.
One proposed trail would circle the lake, and the other proposed trail would lead to the new high school.