OWATONNA — Two months after the Steele County Free Fair Board of Directors approved a new tent for the sale of beer, wine, and hard liquor at the 2019 fair, a community petition was submitted to the board in opposition of the decision.
“These are people who are just voicing their opinion that they do not think it’s a good idea for the fair to be selling alcohol,” said Lloyd Kaplan of Owatonna, who spearheaded the petition that included signatures from all areas of Steele County. “There’s enough alcohol there the way it is without adding to it.”
The petition, which had gathered less than 100 names from a variety of people including administrators, directors, nurses, school personnel, youth group leaders, farmers, pastors, business owners, and a local legislator, was accompanied by three letters expressing concerns with the new tent. The cover letter stated that the overall belief among those who signed is that the sale of hard liquor will be “very detrimental to the overall environment of the fair” and will “likely pose a significantly negative impact on very community-minded goals” that the fair board hopes to achieve each and every year. The cover letter also states that the fair board should reconsider its decision.
“We only got a small portion of people to sign it throughout the county, but there are so many that are against,” Kaplan said. “What I told the fair manager is that the people are talking and I hope that the fair board will listen to the people. Hopefully they will go back and think about what they did.”
“I think it’s just stupid,” said Kaplan’s wife, Jackie Kaplan, who helped pen what of the letters submitted with the petition. “It’s like putting a liquor store or bar right next to the high school.”
A large concern emphasized by the letters revolved around the location that the tent, which will be formally named the Steele Saloon, would be erected. When the saloon was first approved by the board by an 8-5 vote, there was discussion about it being located on the east side of the fairgrounds near the 4-H food stand on machinery hill. Since then, however, the location has been moved to the new reconfigured north end of the former racetrack, sandwiched between the new fence that will block off the grandstand area and a path that will run down the middle of the newly formed area.
Though the location of the saloon was emphasized in the petition letters, noting that it would just bring “unnecessary temptations” for the youth attending the fair, Lloyd Kaplan said Friday that he didn’t believe the location made much of a difference to the negative impact he believes would come with the sale of hard liquor.
“This is a hindrance to the family aspect of the fair,” Kaplan said. “The fair is all about the kids and family. That’s why all these people feel they don’t need to mix these things with alcohol at the fair.”
Among the signatures on the petition is Rep. John Petersburg (R-Waseca), who told the People’s Press that his reasoning for signing aligned with the opinion that the Steele County Free Fair is a family event that has no place for alcohol.
“The Steele County Fair is such a great family event and I don’t think we should do anything that could potentially impact that,” Petersburg said. “Drinking a beer to cool down is much different than drinking hard liquor. Hard liquor is easier to overindulge and to get intoxicated as well. For me, the potential downsides and dangers far outweigh any benefits.”
In response to the petition letters, specifically the notion that the saloon could detract from the family-friendly atmosphere of the fair, Board President Dan Deml simply states that he doesn’t agree with that possibility.
“I’m frankly a little surprised that people think that,” Deml said. “The fact that we are going to have a tent over in a new area that no one has even seen yet, I have a hard time believing or agreeing that this somehow or another will be a distraction of the fair or change the family atmosphere. We have a very large conspicuous beer garden right next door to the midway and it has worked incredibly well and we have had a family-friendly atmosphere at the carnival, in fair square, and with the food court along that side of the grounds.”
“If we never had any alcohol on the fairgrounds before I could maybe see,” Deml continued. “But it’s been here for 60-plus years.”
Deml added that the fair board had heard about the circulation of the petition prior to receiving it and that he contacted the fair’s attorney to see what their obligation regarding the petition is. At the regular fair board meeting on Thursday night, Deml stated that their only legal obligation is to receive it from the public.
“It’s simply people expressing their feelings, but it doesn’t really impact the decision that was made by the board,” Deml said. “My point I would like to make to anyone who may have signed this petition is that I believe the decision was made very responsibly after several months of consideration.”
According to Deml, the idea of adding an additional beer tent on the fairgrounds or allowing the sale of hard liquor has been discussed for a number of years. He added that the biggest obstacle for most of that time had been the lack of space.
“We never had any room for it before, but now we do,” he said in reference to the reconfigured area since the removal of the north end of the racetrack. “It’s something that we’re going to try, but it’s not a new idea. An additional beer tent and hard liquor have been on the back burner for a long time.”
The saloon tent will be 80 feet by 40 feet with two fences boarding the area to create an eight-foot buffer zone. Doug Meier, the fair board director who proposed the idea and will be running the saloon, said that the buffer zone will create additional security and ensure that beverages cannot be passed outside the tent. The saloon hours of operation will be from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on the weekdays, noon to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday. A uniformed official will be at the entrance of the saloon area at all times with no one under the age of 21 being allowed in under any circumstance.
“It is important to note that we run a beer garden that has been around since most people can remember that serves 50,000 glasses of beer and has had very minimal problems,” Deml said. “We have done it very responsibly and successfully, and I am surprised that people would think that we wouldn’t run this tent the same way.”
The saloon was approved for a two-year trial and will be reviewed after the 2020 fair. At that time, the board will determine whether the saloon is able to make a profit and is worth maintaining for future years of the fair. Meier stated that 100% of the proceeds from the saloon will go towards the barn fund, which will help pay off loans for the Radel Pavilion and the new cattle barn that is currently being built.
Despite the new location of the saloon and the precautions that will be put in place, Kaplan stands by his stance that is expressed through the petition and the accompanying letters.
“If this goes through I possibly would not go to the fair, just because they didn’t listen,” Kaplan said. “We are sharing with them the opinion of the people.”
Deml stated that while the fair board wants to hear the opinions of the community, it is important to remember that the directors have to make themselves available to both sides of every opinion.
“You listen to the people who come to talk to you, I just wish that the people who are against this would come in and discuss it so that they have their facts in order,” Deml said, adding that he feels that some of the people who have signed the petition may have been misinformed. “We also have to listen to the many people who have said we should have done this a long time ago. We need to talk to all sides.”
“I would encourage anyone who has a question or concern to contact the fair, myself, Scott Kozelka, or Doug Meier,” Deml continued. “If it’s not something that you prefer to support, that’s fine. But the people who don’t want it shouldn’t stop the people who do from being able to attend.”
Kaplan told the People’s Press that the Steele County Board of Commissioners also received copies of the petition and letters, citing the reason that the fairgrounds is on county property. According to Commissioner and Chair Greg Krueger, as of Friday afternoon he was unaware of the county receiving these documents. Krueger added that the fair board is completely separate from the county board and that there is no action that he is aware of that the commissioners could take regarding the issue.