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Lester Park Golf Course alcohol bill in the rough

Even as a delegation of about 500 Northland representatives began a full-court press in St. Paul on Wednesday, participating in the annual Duluth Days lobbying push, key support for one of the city's top legislative requests appears to be eroding.

clubhouse at the Lester Park Golf Course
Golf carts wait for golfers near the clubhouse at the Lester Park Golf Course in Duluth on Sept. 3, 2014. The city of Duluth has been advocating for a change in state law that would allow for the sale of more alcoholic beverages at the golf course, but key support for that action appears to be eroding. (2014 file / News Tribune)

Even as a delegation of about 500 Northland representatives began a full-court press in St. Paul on Wednesday, participating in the annual Duluth Days lobbying push, key support for one of the city’s top legislative requests appears to be eroding.
The city of Duluth has been advocating for a change in state law that would allow for the sale of more alcoholic beverages at the Lester Park Golf Course, a municipal operation that currently can serve its patrons nothing stiffer than “non-intoxicating” beer with a 3.2 percent alcohol content.
Supporters say alcohol sales could bolster the golf course’s bottom line, perhaps allowing it to return to profitability after several years of operating at a financial loss.
But City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud and District 7A state Rep. Jennifer Schultz - who both represent Duluth’s Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods - now say they oppose efforts to chip away at Duluth’s only dry zone.
“I’d prefer that first we went and talked to the neighborhood as a whole about liquor in Lakeside and then we talk about the golf course,” Julsrud said.
The law forbidding sales of alcohol in the neighborhoods dates to 1893, when Duluth annexed the city of Lakeside. Changing the law requires legislative action.
In 2008, Lakeside and Lester Park residents narrowly rejected a proposal to open their long-dry neighborhoods to the sale of alcohol after much contentious debate. That nonbinding advisory referendum failed by a single vote, 2,858-2,857.
“It divided the neighborhood at one point, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and I think we need to be really thoughtful about how we proceed,” Julsrud said.
But Daniel Fanning, Duluth’s director of communication and policy, noted that the change being proposed would have no effect on the overall dry status of the neighborhood. Rather, he said it simply would exclude a golf course that’s already situated part within and part outside of Lester Park’s defined boundaries. Fanning called the requested legislation “a minor tweak.”
Still, Schultz said she doesn’t like the idea of any special exclusion for the golf course.
“I think it sets a bad precedent to carve out pieces of the neighborhood,” she said. “If the golf course gets this, I suspect that other businesses will want it too.”
Julsrud said it looks as though the city is seeking preferential treatment for its own operation.
“It doesn’t feel fair that we’re going to do this first for ourselves and not engage in a larger conversation about it. So I would like to pull back and revisit what is going to be good process in this circumstance,” she said.
Fanning said he still hopes Julsrud and Schultz can be persuaded to reconsider.
“We’re not giving up on this yet only because we feel this is the right thing to do for the community, for taxpayers and for those who want the golf course to stay open,” he said.
“I believe this is an opportunity to hear from the community. And we feel, city administration feels, that we heard from the community loud and clear last summer and last fall when we were exploring options for the Lester Park Golf Course, knowing how much money they have been losing and  knowing how many tax dollars have been going to subsidize it,” Fanning said.
While support for granting the golf course a liquor license appears dubious in the House, state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said he’s willing to move ahead with such a bill. He predicts the proposed modification would cause much less of a stir than the 2008 Lakeside/Lester Park referendum, which he helped authorize as a city councilor at the time.
“Having lived through that vote in 2008, knowing how contentious it was and having lost some personal friendships over just allowing the vote - not changing the status - I did not want to blindly wade into that issue again,” Reinert said.
But he doesn’t think he current proposal will result in similar agitation.
“I’ve actively reached out and talked to some folks, and it’s just not seen as the same thing. The survival of the golf course is very different than the sort of quality of life in the neighborhoods,” Reinert said.
“I continue to fully support self-determination for Lakeside and Lester Park on the other issue of alcohol being served in those neighborhoods, but this is a different issue,” Reinert said.
Schultz said Julsrud’s lack of support for the proposed legislation gave her serious pause and caused her to question whether it was appropriate for the Legislature to be tinkering with local restrictions on alcohol sales.
“It’s a city issue, so any change really should start at that level,” she said.
However, Fanning noted that any change in alcohol regulations will need to be approved at the state level. He said that if the Legislature fails to take up the matter this session, it could be a few more years before the city has another opportunity to revisit the issue. A major renovation of the State Capitol and the disruption it will cause is expected to yield an abbreviated next session, likely focused narrowly on a bonding bill.
With more than a couple of weeks left for bills to be introduced, Fanning said there is still time for progress.
“We know that having a liquor license isn’t going to mean a be-all and solve-all, but we do know that it would kind of nick away at the problem. Lester Park has so much going for it in a positive way. It’s a beautiful course, and there is a lot of loyalty to the course,” he said.
“I think that it’s imperative that if the community wants to make sure that Lester can remain open and stop losing $100,000 to $150,000 per year, we have to make some changes, and they’re minor changes,” Fanning said.
This year, the Lester Park Golf Course will operate under new management provided by Billy Casper Golf. Fanning said alcohol sales could help that firm turn the financial tide there.
“We’re bringing in a new golf management company, and we don’t want to tie their hands. We want to provide them all the tools at our disposal to help turn a deficit into a profit, and we’re confident they can do that with a number of actions from our end, and I think one of those is getting them a liquor license,” he said.

Related Topics: GOLF
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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