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Ellsworth bar, restaurant owners discuss enforcement 'zones'

While the Ellsworth Village Board had a lengthy agenda last Monday, it was a non-agenda item which took up a great deal of discussion time at the meeting’s start.

Village and nearby tavern and restaurant owners packed the meeting to discuss a group of orange signs the village police department purchased with state grant money last fall. One sign in particular had their ire and it said “OWI Enforcement Zone.” The other signs were enforcement zones for speeding and seat belts.

“The state gave us the money to use for traffic enforcement,” Ellsworth Police Chief Eric Ladwig said. “The money was used to put up these signs and allows an extra car on patrol. It’s zero tolerance and we’ve put them out so far on weekends.”

Ladwig said only one OWI arrest has been made since the signs went up over the past few weeks after receiving them from the state and emphasized the police were not setting up checkpoints, which are prevalent in Minnesota but not allowed in Wisconsin. He also said River Falls and Prescott were using the same signs and “enforcement zones” as well. Using the signs is fulfilling a state requirement in return for receiving the grant money.

But tavern and restaurant owners said such “enforcement zones” are merely a fancy way of saying checkpoints and said such signs will drive away customers.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Twin Cities that goes through Ellsworth that comes out to Vino in the Valley,” Vino’s owner Larry Brenner said. “You put up these signs and they’re not going to come through Ellsworth and may not come out to Vino’s because it’s not worth the hassle.”

Lisa Huppert, owner of The Hub, said the enforcement zones are driving away business.

“We had police cars parked across from the bar for two hours and we had no customers,” Huppert said. “How am I supposed to pay my bills? You’re making people afraid of going out.”

The tavern and restaurant owners emphasized they are vigilant in making sure customers do not leave their establishments intoxicated with programs like the Ride Share.

“The intent is fine, but the results are going to hurt local businesses,” Jason Marks of Broz Bar said. “We don’t have a problem putting up signs for speed or seat belt enforcement, or even just having that extra enforcement, just not that particular sign.”

Village President Gerald DeWolfe said the village board would work with the police department to develop a compromise solution that would satisfy the grant requirements and not hurt local business.