FARGO — Fargo bar and restaurant owners are breathing a little easier thanks to the Fargo City Commission’s decision to rebate liquor license and inspection fees and waive city utility charges for the first six months of 2021.
At the same time, owners of other businesses are saying, “Why not us?” when it comes to getting help to keep their doors open, too.
Warren Ackley, whose business interests include the JL Beers and Vinyl Taco franchises, Borrowed Bucks and the Old Broadway, said the bar and restaurant industry needs all the help it can get to survive the restrictions on capacity and hours that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We appreciate anything the city does to help us out,” Ackley said Tuesday, Dec. 15. “We’re going to do the best we can through this thing. And, hopefully, we can get open completely sooner than later. But we appreciate the city’s efforts to help our industry, because it’s a pretty hard-hit section of the business community.
“Obviously, I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been here 43 years. It’s amazing. And so, all of that helps,” Ackley said. “It’s been a tough year for restaurants and bars, because we lost St. Patrick’s Day, we lost Halloween, we’re going to lose New Year’s Eve. Those are our three biggest days of the year. That pays a lot of bills for us.”
On Monday night, commissioners unanimously approved a program to start Jan. 1 that will provide relief to the 440 bars and food service establishments in the city.
The relief includes a rebate to most of the businesses who have already paid their liquor license or food inspection fees for 2021 and waiving city utility charges for the first six months of the year.
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The aid will cost the city about $696,120 in utility collections for water, sewer and garbage, $306,000 for alcohol license renewal rebates and $137,445 for food inspection fees.
In all, the program is estimated to cost the city about $1.1 million, or about $2,500 per establishment on average.
Chad Klimek, who owns The Windbreak bar and music venue in south Fargo and is a co-owner of Southtown Pourhouse, said the city’s help was sorely needed and is welcome.
“It’s great news. It’s a huge help for everybody. That’s a significant savings,” Klimek said. "It’s been hard keeping his businesses going through the pandemic. It’s even harder when you can’t have live music. … The Windbreak has seen a dramatic loss in sales."
Klimek said the package will help get a lot of businesses through the pandemic.
“I think that’s a big boost. It depends on what your utility bills are. Ours are fairly significant,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing that they did that, so I’m pretty happy."
Other Fargo business owners said they could use some help from the city, too.
“My reaction was, ‘Why not us?’ Right away, I was like, 'What about gyms?' because obviously we have limited capacity. We’re very similar. We’re serving people in a similar fashion. Why not us?” asked Michelle Cody, the studio director of Fly Fitness.
“When we first shut down, Kilbourne waived our rent for that month. That kind of thing was obviously very helpful,” Cody said.
She said it would be fair for the city to give more businesses affected by the pandemic a break on utilities.
Jenny Holland, one of the owners of Dead Rockstar, understands why the city targeted its help towards bars and restaurants.
“Obviously, our business is different from the ones they’re trying to help with that. I think maybe they need a little bit more help than we do,” Holland said.
Dead Rockstar works by appointment now, and the doors are locked to better control the number of people indoors.
She’d also like to see the city expand the umbrella of its aid.
“They could waive our yearly licensing fees and things like that. Obviously, anything helps. I do agree with her (Michelle Cody). I think there are other businesses that are not doing as well as they were before all this happened. It’s hurting everyone across the board. It would be nice if they did have some kind of program, not for the hospitality stuff like what this is geared towards. For other businesses in general. It would be nice,” Holland said.
Cody and Holland have a supporter in Commissioner John Strand.
On Monday, Strand said the city should continue looking into helping other smaller retail businesses such as salons and gyms who are having financial problems.
Strand suggested the city revisit an earlier three-month policy of stopping shutoffs of utilities as well as eliminating late fee penalties.
For his part, Ackley said the change that would help businesses most is to get back to normal hours.
Hope for that has been fanned by the initial rollout of vaccines to help recipients build some immunity to the virus and eventually create herd immunity to stifle the spread of COVID-19.
“If we can get open, you know, sometime in January, February or March, whenever that happens, that’s going to cure things,” Ackley said. “These things help, but the real cure is to get back open 100%. That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re just trying to survive right now. It’s a nice gesture on behalf of the city, and I appreciate it.”
The program is being latched onto by other area cities, too, as Moorhead City Manager Dan Mahli said at Monday's City Council meeting that they are putting together a plan that would waive utility charges and liquor license and food inspection fees for six months for that city's bars and restaurants. Grand Forks approved this week a rebate for liquor license renewal fees for 2021.