After years of restrictions, a beer garden at the Crow Wing County Fair is in the works after all-although its offerings will be strictly non-alcoholic.

Gary Doucette, president of the fair board and acting manager of the fair, told the county board Tuesday about the plan.

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"I didn't have to approach the county commissioners on it, but I wanted to," Doucette said. "I did what you told me. We thought outside of the box and we'd like to move forward with it."

Establishing a non-alcoholic beer garden-which Doucette said would likely be the only one at a county fair in the state-is a means to raise revenue for the county fair. The sale of beer has never been allowed at the county fair, but in recent years, fair board members have pursued lifting that ban to no avail.

There are unmet infrastructure needs at the fairgrounds, Doucette said during an interview Thursday, including roof repair on at least three buildings, cement work and electrical repairs. And these are just the fundamental needs. Doucette said this leaves little room for growth and innovation. A recent example was a board member's request to purchase more tables and chairs to offer for use at events.

"We had to say no," Doucette said. "We have to take care of our infrastructure first."

Although he said the community has always supported the county fair, donations are down and the potential revenue from a 3.2 percent alcohol beer garden is unattainable after the county board voted to continue the ban last month.

"We need to be creative and come up with other ideas to stand on our own two feet," Doucette said.

The idea of a near-beer garden came to Doucette when he heard a non-alcoholic beer commercial while drifting off to sleep. He looked around to find out whether others had tried a similar concept and could not find examples. He checked on the legality of such a proposal and found there was no additional licensing required, nor any age requirements. Doucette told the board Tuesday he still intended to restrict the ages of those allowed in the beer garden area to 21 and older.

"Probably everybody else thought it was a bonehead idea," Doucette said Thursday. "But I think it will pique a lot of people's attention. ... Maybe we'll create a fad here in Crow Wing County."

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom agreed with Doucette's view at Tuesday's board meeting.

"I think it's brilliant," Nystrom said. "I think it's going to put the Crow Wing County Fair on the map."

Commissioner Paul Thiede expressed a different viewpoint. After Doucette finished explaining the idea during the open forum portion of the meeting, Thiede, who was acting chairman, asked Doucette why he hadn't requested the issue be on the board's agenda.

"You're asking us to make a decision today?" Thiede said.

"This isn't something we need to make a decision on, he just said that," replied Commissioner Rosemary Franzen.

Thiede thanked Doucette for coming but added his opposition to a beer garden extended to Doucette's non-alcoholic proposal.

"A camel puts its nose under the tent quite frequently, and I've seen that," Thiede said, using an expression indicating he thought the idea was a slippery slope. "I would vote against it for that reason."

Doucette said Thursday he wants as many ideas from the community as possible for how the fair can develop revenue sources.

"We just have to be careful about how we spend our money, that's all," Doucette said. "That's why we went this route. We've got a couple of other things we're working on to save us more money and to make us more money. ... We love our community, and we want to do what's best."

Doucette said those with ideas can call the fairground office at 218-829-6680.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.