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State rule on liquor consumption muddles process in MetraPark contract talks
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State rule on liquor consumption muddles process in MetraPark contract talks

New state rules that regulate how alcohol can be consumed when more than one vendor is selling it has slowed Yellowstone County's bid selection process for a new vendor at the First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. 

County commissioners and MetraPark officials recently discussed a new Montana Department of Revenue regulation that stipulates customers who buy alcohol from one vendor cannot drink it on the premises of a different vendor. 

The county received three bid proposals to take over the contract selling alcohol at the arena — from the Pub Station, Anderson Management Group and the Breakfast Exchange Club of Billings. 

The Exchange Club has had the contract for the last four decades. 

The Pub Station's bid won't be considered; the company only has a beer and wine license and the county requires an all-beverage license for a group to be a vendor at the arena. 

Anderson Management Group has an all-beverage license and would have the ability to sell both beer and wine along with hard drinks at Metra events. 

Like the Pub Station, the Exchange Club only has a beer and wine license but traditionally has used Tiny's Tavern as a subcontractor to sell hard liquor. In its proposal to the county, the Breakfast Exchange Club stated its arrangement with Tiny's would continue. 

And that's the issue for the county.

Commissioners have been unsure how to interpret the new Department of Revenue consumption rule should the county use the Exchange Club with Tiny's as the hard liquor subcontractor. In essence the Metra would have two vendors selling different types of alcohol at the arena, Commissioner Don Jones said at a recent meeting.

And he wants to ensure the county does business "by the book," he said. 

So to help, commissioners have sought guidance from an outside attorney who once worked for the state Department of Revenue. 

It's an added wrinkle to an already complicated situation. This year is the first time commissioners have sought bids for the alcohol vending contract at the arena. 

The Breakfast Exchange Club has had the contract to sell beer and wine at MetraPark for the last 43 years, part of an agreement that facilitated the club's charitable mission. The club donated all its alcohol sale proceeds to community groups that address child abuse prevention, veterans care, and community needs.

In the past, the county simply renewed the Exchange Club's seven-year contract at the end of each term. A change in state law required that this year the county go through the public request-for-proposal process.

At the meeting last week, Commissioner John Ostlund praised the charitable work done by the Breakfast Exchange Club and expressed a desire to find ways that would allow them to continue to participate with the county should commissioners award the contract to another group.

Tim Goodridge, assistant director of MetraPark, agreed and talked about the Metra putting together a type of alcohol vendor preferred provider list that it could hand out to groups that rent other facilities at the Metra for various events. 

The list would be comprised of trusted organizations, like the Breakfast Exchange Club, that have a solid track record selling alcohol at the Metra.

But the clock is ticking. First Interstate Arena already is gearing up for a busy summer and it has no alcohol vendor in place. The Professional Bull Riders event runs this weekend followed by a concert by country music star Toby Keith on May 22. 

As the county has worked through the bid process, Metra has brought in alcohol vendors using one-time contracts to work these events since February. 

But the process is labor intensive for Metra staff and the vendor, who has to set up and take down equipment for each day and each event, Goodridge said. He expressed his hope at the meeting that the county could award a new contract in the next few weeks.

First Interstate Arena, known to many by its original "Metra" name, has hosted some of the best rock acts of all time since its completion in 1975. Here are just a few of the artists who played at Billings' arena near the release of Platinum-certified albums.

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