Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

After 30 years, Steinbach chooses booze

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MANITOBA'S largest dry community overturned a 30-year ban on alcohol sales in restaurants last night by a tiny margin.

"As of tonight, Steinbach is wet," Mayor Les Magnusson said after the ballots were counted. "We will have restaurants in the city serving wine and alcohol."

No bars will be allowed, although there is already one on the edge of the city.

Fifty-one per cent of Steinbach residents voted to loosen the rules, while 49 per cent wanted to keep liquor out. The unofficial count will be confirmed today.

More than half of about 6,500 eligible voters in the Mennonite-dominated community cast ballots -- more than twice as many people as turned out for the last liquor referendum, held during a municipal election.

In 1995, 56 per cent of voters wanted to keep the alcohol ban.

"The demographic changed a little bit," said Coun. David Banman, who initiated the referendum.

John Giesbrecht, 25, who picked up a six-pack of Kokanee last night at Frantz Motor Inn on the edge of the city, said Steinbach seniors are more opposed to alcohol.

He claims the city has a drunk driving problem because people have to leave town to drink.

But some young people liked coming of age in a city where alcohol sales were restricted.

"I think we do better without it," said Chelsea Friesen, 18. "I don't hang out with people who drink."

Her mother, Sharynn Friesen, 41, said Steinbach was founded on principles that include abstaining from alcohol. "That makes us unique in Canada and I think that's cool."

Banman said the referendum campaign was different from earlier votes that were very acrimonious.

"It's been a really healthy debate -- nothing personal."

The lawyer said he raised the issue because he wanted Steinbach's laws to catch up with the reality of alcohol availability in the city.

The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission already issues about 150 permits a year for special events -- including one last night at the Steinbach curling club, where Banman awaited the results.

He believes Steinbach will not change significantly because of the vote.

The mayor said the council will respect the result and pass a motion at the next council meeting to allow liquor sales in restaurants.

"You have to listen to the people."

He voted yesterday to keep the ban, arguing that it contributes to the city's low crime rate compared to other Manitoba communities.

Magnusson said local churches encouraged members to get out and vote, but there was no organized campaign either for or against the ban.

"This liquor vote is not going to divide the community."

RCMP Sgt. Bryan Walker said it's hard to predict whether allowing more alcohol will affect crime patterns, which he attributes to Steinbach being a very moral community.

"Would there be floodgates -- who knows?"

Kim Delorme, who voted to lift the alcohol ban, predicted there might be some hard feelings in town until people see the outcome, which she expects to be insignificant.

Young people already get alcohol from their parents' liquor cabinets, she said.

Yesterday's referendum was the fifth time in 30 years residents of Steinbach have voted on the issue.

The sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants was first banned in 1973 after the community's men-only beer parlour burned down.

Jason Gauthier, co-owner of Frantz's, predicts more Steinbach residents will stay in the city for an evening out, instead of going to Winnipeg. That should be good for his three-year-old business.

John Froese, 34, said he was probably too drunk to know what was going on during the last referendum, but since he quit drinking, he has become a fan of restricting alcohol sales.

helen.fallding@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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