10/27/2011 12:31 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

One of the last dry Manitoba communities votes to loosen liquor laws

WINNIPEG - The largest dry community in Manitoba is loosening its liquor laws despite fears from some long-time residents that allowing bars to operate in the traditionally Mennonite city will lead to public intoxication, alcoholism and drunk-driving.

Residents in the southeastern city of Steinbach voted Wednesday night to allow bars and cocktail lounges to operate within city limits. Some 70 per cent of voters in the community of about 13,000 also agreed to grant liquor licences to private clubs.

Unlike previous debates on the city's liquor laws, Steinbach Mayor Chris Goerzen said there was very little passionate discussion.

In 2003, barely 51 per cent of Steinbach voters cast ballots in favour of allowing restaurants to serve alcohol with meals. As recently as 2007, voters decided against against allowing easier access to liquor.

But Goerzen said the community is changing.

"We've had a lot of immigration, we've had a lot of people moving into our city," he said. "We're the fastest growing urban centre in Manitoba and probably one of the fastest in Western Canada. With that, there are obviously cultural changes, too."

Although numerous attempts to overturn Steinbach's booze ban failed from the 1970s onward, liquor laws in Manitoba's so-called Bible belt have been slowly relaxing in the last decade.

Residents of Winkler, Man., voted in favour of cocktail lounges and licensing private clubs in 2003. Five years later, Steinbach's first liquor store opened.

Aside from dry native reserves in the province's north, Steinbach was the largest hold-out left in Manitoba.

But some aren't happy about the changes.

Les Magnusson has lived in Steinbach for 30 years and said he's worried having bars and lounges will lead to trouble. As the city's former mayor, he fought against lifting the city's liquor ban in 2003 because of concerns it would change the character of the community.

Now, he said he's worried having bars and lounges will mean public intoxication, alcoholism and accidents caused by drunk driving.

"I just don't want to see people walking down the street drunk," Magnusson said. "We've been in the city 30-some years and this year is the first time I've seen somebody walking down the street drunk . . . I just don't want to see more of that."

Magnusson said he's seen too many lives destroyed by alcohol.

"I've been around too many accidents where liquor has been involved," he said. "It only takes one drink to start, to become an alcoholic."

Still, those who argued to lift the ban on bars say it might even make the community safer. Despite the lack of bars in Steinbach, Goerzen said people are drinking alcohol.

"If they have to drive somewhere to do that, it's less safe than if they can stay in their own community and be safe about it and be responsible," he said.

Wednesday's vote had unanimous approval from city council and came about largely due to pressure from Boston Pizza, which wanted to build a restaurant and lounge in the town. Steinbach Curling Club also wanted a liquor licence for a private club.

Steinbach city council still will vote to officially approve the liquor law changes in December, but Goerzen said that is a formality since the referendum results are binding.