By Tara Mathews
HOWARD LAKE, MN Howard Lake City Council had a full house for its public hearing regarding the future of the Howard Lake Municipal Liquor Store at its council meeting Tuesday.
Gary Weiers of David Drown Associates summarized analysis results for attendees.
“This analysis was purely financial, it did not analyze whether or not the municipal liquor store is an asset to the community,” Weiers noted.
The municipal liquor store has shown a net loss for the past 10 years, he said.
The loss is largely due to increased competition, increased labor costs, insurance premiums, and increased advertising costs, according to Weiers.
“The municipal liquor store will owe the city more than $400,000 by the end of 2014,” Weiers commented.
Although the liquor store pays for a bond, which will be complete in two years, the trends are not pointing toward on-sale operations making a profit, according to Weiers.
“In my opinion, the bond payment is not the central issue,” he stated.
More than 40 community members attended the public hearing, most of which opposed the closing of the on-sale portion of the liquor store.
“Even when they opened bars in Cokato, I continued to go to the Howard Lake Municipal Liquor Store,” Cokato resident Jean Kubiak said. “If you close it down, a whole lot of people are going to be sad.”
Residents offered suggestions for improving the liquor store’s financial situation.
“I can’t believe you would shut it down without trying everything first,” Katie Mach of Howard Lake said. “Raise drink prices, change hours of operation, and watch for over-pouring, those are all things you could do first.”
Council members noted that manager Myra Laway has worked hard to improve the financial situation at the liquor store.
“Myra is excellent at watching the inventory and financial statements line by line,” Mayor Pete Zimmerman said. “She deserves credit for that being done well.”
“When Myra took over as manager of the liquor store, it was in shambles,” Councilman Tom Kutz noted. “She really picked up a bad deal, and she has done good at turning it around.”
Some citizens argued the liquor store regulars and employees are a family, and it’s a town staple.
“This is my family, words can not explain it,” Jason Rasmussen noted.
“The word storage was like a kick in the heart,” Una Kapellusch said regarding options presented to the council for building use if the on-sale portion closed, one of which was storage. “I have never seen the camaraderie anywhere else that I see in this bar, and I imagine I never will.”
Some citizens suggested they would not purchase spirits from the Howard Lake Municipal Liquor Store if the off-sale portion was kept open if the on-sale is closed.
“Most of us have liquor stores in the towns we work in and will just stop there if you close the on-sale,” Howard Lake resident Shelly Miller stated.
Other attendees offered to pay more for drinks, or spread the word to bring in more business.
A few attendees suggested that council give the liquor store one year after the bond is paid off to prove it can turn a profit.
“I have been coming to this bar since I was 18, and yes drinking was legal at 18 back then,” Ted Brown of Howard Lake said. “It’s an awful lot of history to write off. Considering the bond payments are almost done, it seems silly to jump ship now.”
Not everyone was in agreement that taxpayer money should subsidize the liquor store.
“If it’s such a great place like all of you say, the city should have no problem selling it,” Merle Friesen owner of Cattail Corner stated. “The city should not be paying for it and I think they should get out of it.”
Zimmerman expressed his appreciation for those who attended and voiced their opinions.
“We appreciate your comments,” Zimmerman said. “Suggestions will be considered, there were some good ones. It’s nice to hear from residents.”
The council will discuss the situation further at its next meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 21.
“We don’t need to be in a hurry to make a decision,” Zimmerman noted. “This is a big deal, and we want to make the best choice for the community.”
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• heard a Wright County Area Transit update from Al Munson. There are currently four Trailblazer Transit buses in operation in Wright County, he said.
There is expected to be seven buses by the end of 2014, and 14 by the end of 2015, he added.
• accepted the results of its organizational study, and liquor store analysis completed by Gary Weiers of David Drown Associates.
• accepted a $34,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to hire an engineer to plan improvements to the old city hall building.