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Bar owners say business improving

It has been a little over five weeks since City officials relaxed the smoking ban for West Fargo bars and restaurants that was adopted by a vote initiated in the City Election over two years ago. West Fargo City Commissioners passed a revised ordinance in November allowing them to do so in order to give everyone the same competitive edge, but cautioned them this could all change if state law is passed to be more restrictive. The move didn't pass without opposition, as smoking adversaries pointed out the health and risk factors and argued for a complete metro wide smoking ban.

City Commissioner Brenda Warren adamantly opposed relaxing the ordinance, while Mayor Rich Mattern and Commissioners Mark Simmons, Bryan Schulz and Lou Bennett voted for it.

Through the revised ordinance, The West Fargo VFW, Speedway Restaurant, Work Zone, Hooligan's, Ruby Tuesday, Uno's Chicago Grill, and Stars and Strikes were given the ability to allow smoking in their establishments, with the VFW, Speedway and Work Zone following suit immediately on the effective date of Dec. 1.

The question everyone now seems to be asking is, has business really improved for these establishments?

Richard Benson, manager of the West Fargo VFW, said that the club has experienced a large immediate increase in both the bar and gaming business, noting that December sales were up over 30 percent compared to November's figures.

Referencing the gaming alone, he said "it was a very strong month for gaming," pointing out that November is typically a busier month than December and it still went up. In fact, by Dec. 14, the club had already surpassed Novembers total month sales.

Blackjack was up almost 50 percent and he said there was also a marked increase in pull tabs sales, up 35 to 40 percent from the previous month.

He is also pleased the club is seeing old patrons they've not seen since the original ban went into effect. "The first day the ban was relaxed we were seeing many faces we hadn't seen in a couple of years," Benson said. "These are customers we had for years who are now coming back - a lot of old familiar faces we've missed around here."

"I think it's great to be back on an even playing field and fair across the board. It is really nice to see the faces again of the people we have missed. I think they are happy to have another spot in town to go to, and happy to be back in a place a lot of them consider 'their club.'"

Benson was one of several who attended a meeting to address a metro wide smoking ban late last year, but said he's heard nothing more from the group. He said he knows the pressure is on for a total statewide ban. "We will continue to let our voice be heard on a local standpoint."

Work Zone was not allowed to have smoking in their business when they opened late last summer because new bars locating in West Fargo were prevented from doing so because of the initial ordinance.

Manager Barb Mickelson said that since the revised ban went into place, their business has increased and their patrons tend to stay longer, which she feels is directly attributable to them being able to smoke. "We have a lot of different faces that we didn't see before." She said a good example are employees of construction companies, where two people were formerly coming in, now five or six are frequenting the bar.

Curt Burdick, owner of Speedway Restaurant, had to enclose his bar area to allow smoking in his lounge. With that accomplished, he said the action his helped his lunch business and there has been a sizeable difference with evening dining. "People are coming into the bar and ordering sandwiches over the noon hour." And he said those eating in the restaurant who smoke can now take a break from their dining companions and go into the bar and have a cigarette. "That happens a lot," he said.

As for the amount of benefit at this point, he said it is still too early to tell. "It hit us hard the minute they took it away. It will take a little time to get it back, but at least it's improving." He added that it's really good to have customers returning that he hasn't seen in two years.

Addressing the adoption of a complete smoking ban, Burdick said he thinks "it will be tough to get through the state of North Dakota."

In a previous conversation with representatives from Hooligan's, Uno's, Ruby Tuesday and Stars and Strikes, they all indicated they would remain smoke free.

Kurt Lepird, owner of the Silver Dollar Bar, wasn't affected by the original smoking ban and has been able to allow it in his facility all along.

He said he has noticed no difference in his business since the other bars returned to smoking. "This was kind of a big misconcept," he said. "People thought that the customers the VFW lost walked across the street to here." But he said that didn't happen. "There were a handful of people that shared their time. It was not like we gained a whole lot because smoking was not allowed in the VFW."

"I'm glad to see the regular customers are starting to filter back to the VFW because that is good for all of us," Lepird added. "When the VFW does well we do well too and we're always happy to see that. They've always been an asset to my business."

When contacted Monday, City Commissioner Warren said she feels as strongly as ever about her position opposing the ordinance change and she is hoping the North Dakota Legislature will take the step to impose a total statewide ban. "We can't ignore the fact we had an initiated measure that overwhelmingly passed by a majority of residents of West Fargo that wanted to see a smoking ban in West Fargo," she said. "Smoking bans are sweeping the country. People are really becoming aware of the perils of secondhand smoke and everyone deserves a safe working environment, including bar employees. My hope is that our state Legislature will take the responsibility to create a smoke free healthy environment for the residents of North Dakota by passing a complete smoking ban without exceptions."