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Mixed results for 4 a.m. bars in Twin Cities

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There was a decent crowd at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul early Wednesday morning. Managers, though, point out the night was pretty slow until about 2:10, just after other bars had closed.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Twenty bars in Minneapolis and St. Paul paid a fee for the right to stay open until 4 a.m. during the Republican National Convention.  That choice was something of a gamble:  On top of the fee, owners have to pay workers to stay longer and there's no guarantee of increased business.

The Happy Gnome is one of eleven St. Paul bars that took the bet.  At 1:30 last Saturday morning, manager Andrew Lohman told MPR's Chris Roberts about the bar's original plans.  

"Originally we were going to have a 5,000 person tent outside and be open 24/7," Lohman said.  "We had a bus that was going to run every 15 minutes and bring people straight here, and that was going to be a good deal for us."

4:00 a.m. bar
The Happy Gnome is one of 11 bars in St. Paul that got a license to stay open until 4:00 a.m. during the Republican Convention. Managers say they've had pretty good crowds during those two extra hours, but customers are almost entirely locals who have no connection to the RNC.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

But Lohman says those plans have changed.

"Secret Service came in a couple weeks ago and said there's no traffic within five blocks of the Xcel, or whatever it is, so we had to scale back a little bit.  So we're hoping they still come."

Early Wednesday morning, on-duty manager Colie Clapp said it appears it will be worth it to have stayed open later -- but not for the reasons the bar first thought.

Bar owners thought they'd be serving convention-goers and Republicans all night.  But business was actually fairly slow on Tuesday night until about 2:10 Wednesday morning.  That's when a swarm of locals showed up from other bars that had just closed.

Clapp says it made sense to ditch the original idea to pitch a tent in the parking lot.

"It's been slow."

"I think we're much better off the route we went versus trying to go that big, especially with all the variables that were in play that nobody could really have that educated of a guess," Clapp said. "It's not something the city's ever seen before so nobody really knew what to expect."

Still, it hasn't been all positive for bar owners.  Bill Collins, who owns the nightclub Camp, wondered where the crowds were when he spoke this week with MPR's Laura Yuen.

"For the critical mass and the number of people who are out here, it's confounding," Collins said. "Where are these people eating and drinking?"  

Collins is referring to the 45,000 conventioneers, journalists and other out-of-town visitors. 

As for Minneapolis, a trip down Hennepin Ave. near Block E early Wednesday morning revealed clumps of people roaming the sidewalks around 2 a.m.  Presumably, they were moving from bars that had just closed to those that were still open because streets and sidewalks were mostly quiet just a half hour later.  The mass of humanity that sometimes spills over onto downtown Minneapolis streets during normal weekends was nowhere to be seen.

That's not to say people weren't out, though.  Many 4 a.m. bars were busy.  Two bars that are open late this week - The Local and The Newsroom - sit across from each other at 10th and Nicollett Mall.

Bar owners
With the GOP-clad Xcel Energy Center behind them, bar owners spoke at the Liffey Irish Pub on Aug. 13 to ask the St. Paul City Council to eliminate its fee for 4:00 a.m. licenses. The council is now considering such legislation. Photographed are, from left to right: John Wolf (Dixie's on Grand); Sean Fetterman (Innuendo); Bill Collins (Camp Bar); Kieran Folliard (The Liffey); and Kris Johnson, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

At 2:30 Wednesday morning, the Local had a larger crowd.  Seats around the actual bar inside the Newsroom were full but only a few nearby tables had customers - and the back room was completely empty.

"It's been slow," noted manager Brad Schwitchenberg.  He also pointed out, though, that this time of year - the end of the State Fair and the start of school - is usually slow for regulars.

That means nearly all traffic at the Newsroom has been convention-goers.  Schwitchenberg just thought there'd be more of them "maybe to get a lot of people for a late-night dinner after the speeches ended, and tonight we didn't see it."

"We expected buses dropping people off at the hotels afterwards and getting some late-night dinners," said Schwitchenberg. "We are getting a few, just not as many as we expected."

However, Schwitchenberg says they had always planned for Wednesday and Thursday nights to be busiest, as the convention ends.  So, unless delegates all board planes immediately after the end of the RNC Thursday night, Schwitchenberg isn't ready to call the 4 a.m. bet a failure.

Across the mall, even the Local's outdoor seating was nearly full, despite how chilly it was at the early hour.

The Local's general manager, Josh Petzel, says they've been pleased with the flow of customers during those extra two hours but he partially credits his own grassroots efforts.  He's been telling any cab driver, limo driver or hotel employee that will listen that his is one of the bars open late, hoping to spread the word.

Petzel says Minneapolis potentially missed the boat, though, to attract more business by only letting bars stay open, starting Monday night.  St. Paul bars were allowed to open late on Sunday night.

"It would have been nice to have Saturday and Sunday thrown into the mix," Petzel said, standing outside his bar.  "You have a lot of people arriving into town here with little convention responsibilities and a lot more leisure time. In the long run, it pays off to be open longer."

Last week, the city of St. Paul reached a deal to reimburse bars as much as $2,000 of their $2,500 fee.  But the City Council won't be able to pass the necessary ordinance for the rebate to take effect until after the convention.  Bars in Bloomington and Eagen were allowed to stay open without paying an extra fee.