YEAR IN REVIEW County board slugs it out over raises, smoking ban
By Lanier Frush Holt
The year was akin to a championship fight with the county board slugging it out with residents over controversial issues.
Some restaurant owners came out swinging early in 2002 saying they were seeing red in their financial statements as all county restaurants went smoke-free this year.
The county sounded the starting bell in November 2001 with a 5-2 vote making Olmsted the first Minnesota county to go smoke-free.
Those in the smokers' corner tried a paper campaign hoping a petition would force the board to reconsider.
Jimmy Psomas, owner of Mac's Downtown Restaurant, said he didn't know how long his business could take the hits. The restaurant, on the Peace Plaza, was a hot spot for downtown smokers. Like many owners, Psomas said some patrons no longer will eat there because they can't smoke.
A poll commissioned by the Post-Bulletin, however, struck a blow against restaurant owners' claims of anticipated business losses. The SNG Research Corp. poll showed more than 60 percent of county residents favor the smoking ban. SNG Research Corp. is owned by Small Newspaper Group Inc., which also owns the Post-Bulletin Co.
The percentage, said Tom Kottke, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, is "enough to pass a constitutional amendment."
While the board enjoyed a period of relative serenity after the poll, it was more the calm before the storm. An unprecedented number of candidates would battle commissioners in elections as redistricting placed all seven board seats on the ballot.
The county board found itself in a different type of battle with residents three weeks after the election when commissioners approved a 26 percent salary increase on a 4-3 vote.
Commissioners said they deserved the increase because their compensation lags behind commissioners in comparably populated counties.
Opponents questioned the timing, saying the board should have mentioned the increase before the election. They also said the increase was too much all at once.
Commissioners said they haven't given themselves more than a cost-of-living increase since the mid-1980s.
The increase brings the average commissioner's salary to $31,499 -- up from about $25,000 per year.
Before about 50 angry residents in December who requested a re-vote, the board stuck by its previous decision, with commissioners Mike Podulke, Carol Kamper, Paul Wilson and Jean Michaels voting for the increase. Matt Flynn, Jeff Thompson and Jim Daley opposed it.
John Reynolds, creator of a Web site that's received more than 500 signatures to repeal the increase, said after the meeting he didn't expect the commissioners to change their votes. He also said he didn't expect to garner as many signatures on his petition.
He "planted a seed," he said, and hopes voters remember the pay increase at the next county board election in 2004.
COLONIAL CAFE CLOSES
By Lanier Frush Holt
The coming new year will be quite different from the last for Dave Atkinson.
He has a few jobs lined up, but there's nothing like owning your business.
He and his wife, Naomi, had run the Colonial Inn House Cafe at 114 Second St. S.W. for nine years. Eight of those years, he said, were good. But then the county's ban on smoking in restaurants came into play and the last year, well, went down in flames.
The business was hemorrhaging cash with daily business down 50 percent, Atkinson said. He estimates losses were about $800 a day in the nine months since the ban went into effect.
The business closed Dec. 12.
"I thought it would come back. That's why it took so long for me to give up. But it never did," he said.
The couple had bankrolled the business largely with their own cash. Naomi found a job at Mayo Clinic in June to offset the family's losses. Still, Atkinson said, the family finds itself pretty much bankrupt.
"I was able to scrape up enough money to pay my employees and I'm glad about that. I didn't leave them out in the cold," Dave Atkinson said.
Staffing was down from 12 employees in January to six when it closed. All have found jobs elsewhere, he said.
The ban went into effect for all restaurants in April, making nearly 300 county eateries smoke-free.
Some restaurant owners had complained that the ordinance would hurt their businesses. The Colonial Inn cafe is the first to blame the ordinance for its demise.
Rich Peter, director of the county's environmental health, who helped craft the ordinance, said he could not comment directly on the business closing. "There are a lot of things happening to cause companies to face financial strain," he said.
Located in the shadow of the Mayo Clinic, the business was a break room of sorts for the clinic's smokers, said Atkinson. At least 50 percent of his business was smokers, he said. "We would see them three and four times a day. I don't know where they went."
Mayo, which owns the Colonial Inn building, cut Atkinson's rent in half the first two months the ban was in effect. Even with that help, he said, they could not make ends meet.
"If you're not making money and you're a business, it just doesn't make sense to stay open," said Atkinson. "I can't believe we made it nine months with half the money we had been making."
Smiling Moose succumbs to financial troubles
By Joshua Lynch
About 45 people are out of work after Rochester's Smiling Moose Bar and Grill abruptly closed after business Friday.
The chain restaurant, near U.S. 52 and 19th Street Northwest, was closed by corporate decision. It was the third Smiling Moose to close since October, leaving only the original restaurant in Colorado.
James Theros, a Smiling Moose regional manager, said financial troubles locally and throughout the chain forced the closure.
Theros said the Olmsted County smoking ordinance, which bans smoking inside most local restaurants, led to a 15 percent loss in business.
"We lost about $200,000 in gross sales because of the smoking ordinance," he said. "I continually saw people walk up the stairs with lit cigarettes, read the (no smoking) sign and turn right around."
But Theros said the smoking ordinance was only a part of a larger financial problem. While the Rochester restaurant remained profitable, other chain locations lost money.
Andy Hoot, who managed the Rochester restaurant until he left three weeks ago, said Smiling Moose restaurants in Minneapolis and Bloomington, Ill., continually lost money. Those operations were closed in October.
Hoot said losses stemming from the poorly performing restaurants affected the entire chain.
"We did good business (in Rochester) and made good money, but we were trying to keep two other stores afloat," he said. "It just couldn't be done."
Rochester's Smiling Moose, which opened in November 1990, was scheduled to relocate during 2003 because of the U.S. 52 expansion.
Building owner Dale Ragan said he is in negotiations with the state for the sale of the property.The Minnesota Department of Transportation made an offer of $25,000 last Wednesday, he said. The offer was too low in Ragan's opinion.
"As far as I'm concerned, MnDOT chased my tenant away," he said. He still is in negotiation with the state.
Theros said the future of the Smiling Moose corporation is unclear. Only the original restaurant in Greeley, Colo., remains.
"This is a very sad day," he said. "There's probably even more tough decisions coming down the road."
Rochester's Smiling Moose employed about 45 people, about half of whom were full-time workers. Theros said he is unsure what assistance, if any, will be provided to those who lost their jobs.
Teen to Target Market: Stop targetting us!
A Duluth teen takes on Target Market, Minnesota's youth anti-smoking zealots, with a campaign message of his own: teens aren't as stupid as Target Market thinks they are. Much to the dismay of the organization's directors and the agencies that fund it, Matt Hannula invites other teens to speak up, speak loudly and demand accountability.
Duluth teen targets Target Market
A dose of reality just to mess things up
Columnist Walter Williams doesn't pull any punches. For everyone who was only too happy to jump on the anti-tobacco bandwagon with the rest of the anti-freedom thugs, Williams has a dire warning for you: you're next.
They're coming after you
Liberty be damned
St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial writer D.J. Tice hits the nail on the head in this analysis of MPAAT. Driven by near-religious zeal and blinded by their own self-righteousness, MPAAT defies anyone who dares challenge their actions. In the face of mounting criticism and ongoing investigations by the state attorney general, among other entities, MPAAT blunders ahead with its mission to save Minnesotans from themselves.
Fervor fuels the courage of anti-smoking group
FORCES is an independent, international organization supporting civil liberties and scientific and political integrity with particular reference to the tobacco control and other movements threatening individual choice. The organization's main website at www.forces.org contains an extensive library of scientific studies, research papers, news stories and other information on tobacco-related issues.