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Alcohol at Gichi-ziibi Center? School Board mulls LAMF request

Lakes Area Music Festival organizers requested permission to serve alcohol at certain pre-concert summer events at the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts.

Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts
The Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts is attached to Brainerd High School.
Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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BRAINERD — A Brainerd Public Schools policy prohibits alcohol on school premises, but organizers for the Lakes Area Music Festival hope to get a temporary exemption.

Scott Lykins, the festival’s executive director, went before School Board members Monday, May 9, requesting permission to serve alcohol at the season-opening gala and four other concerts that will take place at the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts throughout the summer.

The arts center is attached to Brainerd High School and was a part of the school district’s 2018 bonding referendum.

The alcohol service, Lykins said, would be strictly limited to the Gichi-ziibi Center’s lobby and would only be available to ticketed or invited guests, who are typically exclusively adults. The alcohol would only be served by licensed caterers, and there would also be nonalcoholic options. Lakes Area Music Festival would obtain its own liquor license from the city prior to the sales, meaning no liability would fall on the district.

“There are so many things that the district has done right getting us where we are today, using community input as the basis of planning, organizing local performing arts groups to participate in the design process, contracting internationally renowned acousticians and theater consultants, and hiring an amazing highly qualified and hardworking team to manage and run the venue,” Lykins said Monday night. “We hope you’ll consider our requests to take one more step in enhancing the concert venue for our community as they attend our beautiful venue.”

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Lykins’ request came with three tiers, organizing the requests in order of importance for festival organizers. The first is for a cash bar and wine with dinner at the festival’s season-opening fundraising gala June 29. The drinks would only be available to ticketed guests.

The second tier is for alcohol to be available during pre-concert receptions for invite-only sponsors in the upstairs balcony lobby on June 30, Aug. 6, 12 and 20, ahead of evening performances.

The third tier is for a pre-concert and intermission cash bar in the lobby during the same four concerts.

Drinks of any kind would not be allowed in the auditorium.

With the exception of the gala, all the other events involving alcohol would also have alcohol-free matinee counterparts on Sunday.

During his presentation Monday night, Lykins noted the large impact of having the Gichi-ziibi Center in Brainerd, giving those in rural communities the opportunity to experience artistic events for which they would otherwise have to travel to Twin Cities locations like the Guthrie Theater, the Ordway Center or Orchestra Hall.

“Our festival activities bring constituents of the area into schools. We turn the Gichi-ziibi Center into a professional concert hall and opera house, drawing regional and national audiences. And we use the support generated at our summer events and fundraisers to help cultivate the education programs, which directly serve your students,” Lykins said. “This is our Ordway, Guthrie and Orchestra Hall.”

Board member Sarah Speer said she agreed with Lykins’ sentiment of the Gichi-ziibi being the manifestation of the community asking for something comparable to the Ordway. Knowing the request for alcohol would help create the kind of experience patrons could get in other locations like the Twin Cities made it more attractive to her, Speer said, noting festival organizers seemed to have thought of everything to mitigate any potential risks.

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Board member Jana Shogren said she agreed with many of Speer’s thoughts.

Board Vice Chair Charles Black Lance, who ran Monday’s meeting in Chair Ruth Nelson’s absence, said he understands the importance of making the Gichi-ziibi Center self-sufficient, bringing in performances that help cover costs, but said he still had some concerns with the request. He said it’s difficult for him to feel comfortable with alcohol in any public space, especially one attached to the school district.

While Black Lance said he believes alcohol does have a place in society, he admitted he might be biased on the issue, as he does not drink himself, and noted alcohol can be and has been a destroyer for many.

He asked the board to consider looking at how any risk factors would be mitigated and, most importantly of all, how serving alcohol would ultimately serve the district’s students. He said he would also like to get some input from mental health professionals on the potential impact of the decision.

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While the festival audiences — especially for the evening events — are almost exclusively adults, Lykins said the events also offer students an opportunity to learn what it means to be a citizen of their community. And if students attend events with their parents, Lykins said they can learn about responsible alcohol use in an environment with cultural activities and that promotes good choices.

“I would also say that anytime we’re cultivating opportunities for audiences to come and enjoy themselves as they want to and as they want to take advantage of cultural opportunities, that is also getting people into the schools, getting them to learn about the facilities that we have and the school programs that we have,” Lykins said. “And as our venue draws support from that, that funnels back into the activities that we’re able to present to your students.”

Black Lance added the facility’s name pays homage to the area’s Native American roots, and the Indigenous community is one that has especially been devastated by alcohol abuse.

“Before we serve the first alcoholic drink at the Gichi-ziibi Center, I want to make sure that we’ve done our due diligence in making sure that we’re going to provide it — or we would provide it — in a way that’s not going to damage or hurt one student,” he said.

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Board member Kevin Boyles said he was torn. While he understood some of Black Lance’s concerns and recognized the facility is part of the school district, he noted members of the public are ultimately the ones that wrote the check to pay for it. Boyles said he would like to hear from the public on the issue.

The School Board’s next regular meeting, which includes public input time, is scheduled for June 13, which Lykins said is after the time tickets for the events would go on sale. And ticket prices for the gala would be contingent on whether wine could be served with dinner.

The board has a special meeting May 25. While board policy states there will be no public input time during special meetings, Superintendent Laine Larson said the board could still add it to that agenda, but board members said they did not want to set a precedent by going against their policy.

While board members agreed they would like to hear public input on the matter, Black Lance said he felt gathering the input needed and ultimately making a decision by the next meeting in May seemed like too quick of a turnaround, especially as the public input would have to come outside of the meeting.

Shogren reminded the board Lykins approached them with the request earlier this year, allowing them time to read through it and ask any questions before the formal request was made. With the board’s busy schedule, though, the item did not make it onto the agenda until now.

Board member Tom Haglin sided with Black Lance, wanting to wait until the June meeting and allowing public input at that time, though Boyles, Shogren and Speer agreed they would like to see it come back May 25.

The item will be on the agenda for the 1 p.m. meeting May 25, and members of the public are invited to contact board members with their input on the issue before then, as Lykins said Tuesday he has encouraged his supporters to do.

No matter the outcome, though, Lykins said organizers are looking forward to being back at the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts for this year’s summer concert series.

Previous policy stance

This isn’t the first time the school district’s alcohol policy played a role in the decisions of local governing bodies.

In 2016, district officials opposed a potential “nanobrewery” seeking to locate in the Franklin Arts Center , citing the district’s zero-tolerance policy for the presence of alcohol and drugs on school property. Although the district no longer owns the former Franklin Middle School building, it leases portions of the building for school activities.

At the time, Superintendent Larson told the Dispatch the presence of a brewery at the site would conflict with district policy and she did not see how a compromise could be reached to allow it to operate there. The couple seeking a conditional use permit from the city of Brainerd for the business withdrew their application after meeting with the district.

“We want to always support new businesses and such that come to the community,” Larson said. “But we just really feel that this is in violation of keeping alcohol and school property separate.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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