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After nearly 500 police calls and a shooting, Fargo commissioner targets 2 liquor licenses

The Bismarck Tavern, the site of a shooting over the weekend, and the Empire face possible disciplinary action. Both combined have had more calls for service than any other downtown bars since Jan. 1 2020. Some city commissioners want the city liquor board to weigh in before they take any action.

The Bismarck Tavern in downtown Fargo on Friday, April 13, 2018. David Samson / The Forum
The Bismarck Tavern in downtown Fargo is seen April 13, 2018. Forum file photo

FARGO — A Fargo City Commissioner and Liquor Control Board member hopes to suspend the liquor licenses of two staple downtown bars following a shooting at one of the establishments over the weekend.

The Empire Tavern and the Bismarck Tavern, which are about one block from each other on Broadway, have had about 500 police calls since Jan. 1, 2020, according to police. The Empire accounts for most of the calls.

On top of that, the Bismarck was the scene of a shooting early Sunday morning when three people were seriously injured just outside the bar.

Police as of Wednesday night continued to search for 43-year-old Brandon Roosevelt Grant, the suspect in the shooting. In an interview with WDAY-TV, Grant's son said his father was acting in self-defense . An online video shows an apparent fight between Grant and other men in the bar, which the son said led up to the shooting.

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3 shot behind downtown Fargo bar; conditions unknown
Fargo police detectives photograph a spent shell casing before bagging it as evidence. Matt Henson / WDAY

That shooting led Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig to call for an immediate suspension of the bars' liquor licenses. He asked the commission to add the decision to its agenda Monday night, but was voted down 4-1 by fellow commissioners who said the Liquor Control Board should first investigate the issue.

Still upset about the vote, Gehrig in a later interview called the three other commissioners and Mayor Tim Mahoney "gutless" and said he found it "ridiculous" that they did not want to discuss the issue.

The two bars have been "on the radar for years and years," said Gehrig, who wanted their licenses suspended immediately with an investigation to follow.

Bismarck and Empire owner Jim Swanick, whose family took over ownership of the Empire in 1947, said he had "no comment" when asked about the shooting and Gehrig's proposal.

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Empire Tavern is seen Monday, Jan. 25, at 424 Broadway, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Swanick has owned and operated the Empire for 40 years, following in his father and uncles' footsteps. He bought the Bismarck later on. Both bars are among the oldest and longest-operating in the city of Fargo with the Empire being the first bar in the city to seek a liquor license in 1936.

Police said there had been about 110 calls to the Bismarck since Jan. 1, 2020. The Empire had many more calls with 382 since January of last year.

Those numbers compared with 110 at the Old Broadway and 77 at Fort Noks Bar of Gold, two other popular bars on the southern downtown end of Broadway.

Police this week were working on compiling the number of calls to all of the bars in the city so city officials could make more comparisons. Calls counted include disturbances, assaults, impaired persons, warrants, thefts, suicidal persons, medical assistance calls and narcotics.

Commissioners Arlette Preston and John Strand said they voted against putting the Empire and Bismarck license discussion on the agenda because the city needs to follow a process and that Gehrig attempted to put an item on the agenda the day of the meeting without public notice.

"We need to have problems documented first and I don't think that's happening well," Preston said about liquor and criminal issues.

Strand echoed those comments. He said the Liquor Control Board should vet any such liquor establishment issues first.

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"That's why they exist," he said about the board. "They need to then advise us."

Strand said he was also alerted to a Facebook page post on Gehrig's city website where he said over the weekend that "Jim Swanick I'm shutting you down." He thought that was inappropriate and it has since been removed.

"We need to treat people with respect and courtesy and have a level playing field," Strand said.

Sunday's Bismarck Tavern shooting follows two other incidents that brought a Swanick-owned bar under the city liquor authority's scrutiny.

At last week's Liquor Control Board meeting, Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski brought up two recent incidents at the Empire Tavern involving employees.

In one instance, he said an intoxicated employee was arrested for a fight outside the bar after she had worked at the bar earlier in the night. The other incident involved a confrontation between a police officer and an employee when an officer entered the bar.

Swanick said at that liquor control meeting that both employees had been "fired" as soon as he found out about it and that it was "embarrassing" that he even had to appear at the liquor control meeting to discuss it.

The board didn't take any action against the Empire at the meeting but put the police reports on the incidents into files for future reference.

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