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Crow Wing County Board: Another year, still no beer

For the second year in a row, the Crow Wing County Board modified a liquor license to prevent the sale of beer at the county fair.

Tuesday's action continues a longstanding ban on beer sales at the Crow Wing County Fair, making it one of the last dry county fairs in the state.

Until last year, the county board has not historically intervened in the liquor license for the Crow Wing County Fair Board. Because the fairgrounds are located in Oak Lawn Township, the liquor license renewal goes before the town board first, which in the past has restricted the license to exclude the week of the fair. The fair board's license, which allows 3.2 percent alcohol malt liquor, is active at all other times of the year.

This year, however, the town board followed suit with its decision last year to place no restrictions on the license, tacitly approving beer sales at the fair.

"I think you can say that their silence is their agreement that it's OK with them," said Deborah Erickson, administrative services director.


"I think you can say that (Oak Lawn Township's) silence is their agreement that (beer sales at the fair are) OK with them."  - Deborah Erickson, administrative services director.


Representatives of the fair board again expressed to the board they saw a beer garden—a controlled, secure environment in which to sell $5-$7 glasses of 3.2 percent alcohol beer—as an opportunity to solve a financial shortfall.

About 20 people attended the meeting and several spoke on both sides of the issue, although most in opposition to allowing the sale of beer. Nearly all of those opposed told the county board they'd lost family members because of drunk driving and wished to keep the fair an alcohol-free, "family-friendly" event.

Sam Anderson, director of treatment facility Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, said he hoped the board would not allow liquor sales at what he considered an "amazing jewel that we have in this community."



Anderson said the organization runs a food booth at the fair and clients volunteer to serve there. He said he never has to worry about those in recovery having access to alcohol while at the county fair.

"I don't have any personal vendetta against alcohol," Anderson said. "It's this event that has been so successful and so wonderful ... I just would hate to see it go down that road and opening up that door."

Pat Bluth lost her daughter Tammy in an alcohol-related crash and is active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"How many times does a community have to speak on this issue?" Bluth said. "Each time, the opinion has been 'no' to a beer garden."


"How many times does a community have to speak on this issue? Each time, the opinion has been 'no' to a beer garden." - Pat Bluth, active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving


The board also heard from Kathy Jordan, whose son Joey was killed by a drunk driver. Jordan said she understood people would continue to drink and drive whether beer was at the fair or not, but urged the board to consider whether they wanted to be responsible for the consequences.

"I want you to really think about this and please say no to a beer garden," Jordan said.

Jim Erickson of East Gull Lake told the board his son died in a 1991 crash after driving drunk.

"I, as his father, drove drunk when I was younger, and I set a bad example," Erickson said. "I bring that up to you folks because in a sense, you are setting an example for the public."

Lorna Hensch, a volunteer with MADD whose sister died from a crash with a drunk driver, said she understood the fair board faced financial difficulties and saw a beer garden as a revenue-raising opportunity, but she suggested there were many other ways the board could raise funds. Hensch said the board could consider charging fairgoers 50 cents at the gate or organize fundraisers such as rummage sales.

"Everyone has change in their pockets, purses or cars," Hensch said. "If just 8,000 people came (to the fair), that is $4,000. This is just one example to increase revenue that we can choose instead of allowing a beer garden to come in."

After each of those in opposition spoke directly after one another, Sharon Ryappy, secretary of the county fair board, took to the mic to explain why the board sought a beer garden. She said nearly all the county fairs in the state have at least one beer garden, with some grossing more than $100,000 in sales. With expenses for the fair board continuing to rise and a reduction in the county's appropriation to the fair board, Ryappy said needed maintenance on the grounds is neglected and innovation is stalled.

"Without innovation and something new to see, we will lose patrons," Ryappy said. "We are intent on maintaining a quality fair that is free to our patrons and continue to operate responsibly on a limited budget."


"Without innovation and something new to see, we will lose patrons. We are intent on maintaining a quality fair that is free to our patrons and continue to operate responsibly on a limited budget." - Sharon Ryappy, secretary of the county fair board


Ryappy said the fair board tried to raise money by hosting a concert fundraiser last year with The Johnny Holm Band and the "public support was not good."

"We did not make money on that," she said.

Ryappy said people drink at the fair now, it's just not in a controlled environment like a beer garden.

"It's in the trunks of cars, it's in coolers in the parking lot, it's in water bottles as people walk through the grounds," Ryappy said.

She said if they were allowed to serve beer at the fair, they considered using the former 4-H food building. This location, Ryappy said, would keep it near the Mills Free Stage and away from the carnival area and other family-oriented activities.

"The bottom line here is, we need revenue," Ryappy said. "If this wasn't working in 98 percent of the fairs, 98 percent of the fairs would not be engaging in the beer sales."


"The bottom line here is, we need revenue. If this wasn't working in 98 percent of the fairs, 98 percent of the fairs would not be engaging in the beer sales." - Sharon Ryappy, secretary of the county fair board


Commissioner Paul Thiede told Ryappy he appreciated her "fearlessness" in framing the issue as a revenue concern.

"Your opposition in the audience says it's not just about revenue, it's about lives," Thiede said. He added he found the example of the failed concert fundraiser a "weak argument" for a beer garden.

"I don't think we've made the progress we've made in Crow Wing County because we follow the lead of anything else," Thiede said. "I have no fear whatsoever that we would be the only one of the fairs without a beer garden."

Gary Doucette, manager of the Crow Wing County Fair Board, said they've discussed partnering with the Brainerd Jaycees to run a beer garden. He said the Jaycees are experienced with managing a beer booth and some of the proceeds would go to support community projects, including Confidence Learning Center.

"We want the fair not just successful, but to keep it on track," Doucette said.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said in several conversations on this issue over the years, she and others have offered suggestions for raising additional revenue, including charging a $1 admission.

"We're not sitting here thinking how are you going to figure this out," Nystrom said.

Doucette said he appreciates ideas but another problem is finding the volunteers to carry out those ideas. He said he and others work on the grounds, including cement work and other repairs, on their own time, and they often have trouble finding enough people to run certain attractions at the fair.

"It takes more than just ideas, it takes people," Doucette said.

Commissioner Paul Koering said he served on the fair board in the 1980s and said there has always been an "unwritten rule" that the county would contribute financial support to the fair board on the condition they would not charge patrons at the gate.

"I look at it as Crow Wing County's community picnic," Koering said. "To charge for our community picnic, I don't agree with that."


"I look at it (The county fair) as Crow Wing County's community picnic. To charge for our community picnic, I don't agree with that." - Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering


Doucette said an informal survey of fairgoers would corroborate Koering's feelings.

"I would prefer to keep that a free fair more than anything, because we get a lot of compliments on that," Doucette said. "We have to be creative in how we do this. ... The only way this is going to be done is by the whole community coming forward."

George Burton of Brainerd, who often comments on issues concerning the fair board, said he didn't understand why serving beer was such a problem for commissioners.

"If it's a big problem all over the state, I want to know why we don't hear about it," Burton said. "We know what the Jaycees do with their money. ... I dare you to vote against giving money to Camp Confidence."

Nick Johnson of the Brainerd Jaycees said the group is trained in appropriately serving people alcohol and will cut people off if they appear intoxicated.

"Don't think about this as, we want to sell beer at the county fair," Johnson said. "Think about this as, we want to be able to enable the county fair to be able to run without charging."

Chairman Doug Houge closed the public comment period after Johnson spoke. Nystrom made a motion to approve the license while restricting sales during the week of the fair. Thiede seconded the motion and then stated, "I've served a long time on this board. I never realized that a vote against liquor is a vote against Camp Confidence. That just really floors me."

The board passed the motion unanimously. Last year, the same measure passed 3-2, with Koering and Houge opposed.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or Follow on Twitter at

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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