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Heidi Shaffer, Published September 16 2010

Fargo police say 15-seat bicycle bar must run dry in city

A bicycle built for 15 that allows booze on board is traveling a rough road in getting approval to operate in Fargo.

The Bar Hopper, owned by Jamestown, N.D., native Jon Vannett, is a pedal-powered vehicle chartered by riders who can bring their own alcohol and drink as they cruise city streets while a hired sober driver steers.

Vannett plans to take the vehicle out on its first voyage in the metro for Saturday’s Bison home opener at the Fargodome, but passengers will have to ride booze-free in Fargo.

Vannett’s vehicle is OK’d to run in Moorhead and Detroit Lakes because Minnesota state law allows an exemption for alcohol on board such a vehicle.

Because the type of vehicle is not clearly defined in North Dakota law, Vannett’s business falls into a legal gray area, said Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes.

“There’s really no classification for the thing,” Vannett said.

Anyone drinking alcohol on a conventional bicycle would be subject to a drinking-in-public citation. Though Vannett’s vehicle may not be classified as a bike, Fargo city attorneys think riders would be subject to the same violation, Ternes said.

Vannett argues that his business is covered under the same law that allows limousine and party bus riders to drink on board.

Vannett said it’s the police’s job to enforce the law, “not change the law or twist it around.”

North Dakota law allows drinking aboard limousines and “party buses,” but the statute defines such operations as motor vehicles.

Vannett first presented the idea to the Fargo Liquor Control Board in July.

Members of the board were hesitant to have alcohol included as part of the proposal and wanted to see how the business went over in Moorhead, Ternes said.

“We kind of took a wait-and-see approach,” he said.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said he has some concerns about a business such as Vannett’s, but since it’s allowed within the state law, police will not prevent him from operating.

But Moorhead police will monitor the Bar Hopper to ensure it operates within that law, Ebinger said.

“Any business that involves a vehicle of any sort or alcoholic beverage is obviously something we’re going to monitor,” Ebinger said.

Nothing in Fargo’s city ordinances prevents Vannett from operating the vehicle without alcohol, Ternes said, but he has concerns that the vehicle about the size of a minivan could obstruct traffic.

Vannett can seek a change in city ordinance to allow alcohol on board in Fargo, but Ternes said he isn’t sure whether there would be wide support from city and liquor control officials.

This weekend, riders will pedal with beers out in Moorhead but table the alcohol once they cross into Fargo for the Bison game, Vannett said.

The business has become a side project for 41-year-old. Vannett and a friend built the vehicle, which is powered by five bicycles on each side.

The Detroit Lakes City Council approved Vannett’s business in June, issuing him a taxi permit, requiring him to carry $1 million in liability insurance.

Vannett operated the Bar Hopper just once over the Fourth of July.

Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk said he hasn’t heard any negative feedback from residents, and the business seems to be a good fit for his city because it appeals to tourists.

The driver will card passengers, who must be 18 to ride and 21 to drink, Vannett said.

Riders will also pay a deposit when boarding the Bar Hopper, which Vannett said will help ensure good behavior.

“If you are getting out of hand, you’re going to lose your deposit,” he said.

Vannett said Fargo is missing out on the opportunity to take what could be 15 drunken drivers off the road.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “Lame old Fargo doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511