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A small Manitoba city composed largely of Mennonites is voting in a referendum Wednesday to decide whether they will allow liquor to be sold and served in their community, which has been alcohol free since a single beer hall for men burned down in 1973.

The motion for the referendum in Steinbach, a city of 10,000 people about 40 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, was approved earlier by four of the seven members of city council. Voting ends at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"As far as some members of council and I are concerned, we don't want to have alcohol in our community," Les Magnusson, Steinbach's mayor for the past eight years, told on Wednesday.

"We're a unique community. We are one of the fastest growing cities in Manitoba, and we have one of the lowest crime rates. It's a beautiful place, and there is no sale of liquor within our boundaries.

"Why do we need it to bring more crime into our community or more accidents? We don't need that kind of stuff," he said.

The referendum is the city's fifth in 30 years.

The first, held in 1973, took place when there was talk of rebuilding the hotel that housed the old beer hall with a drinking hall that would allow women and drinks beyond beer.

The proposal to sell liquor was rejected in that inaugural referendum, and again in three that followed.

Despite the fact that about half of Steinbach's residents are Mennonites, Mr. Magnusson, who has been a member of city council for 26 years, said "religion has nothing to do with it.

"I think a lot of the people including myself acknowledge that people already have access to alcohol - we're not a dry community," he said.

The Manitoba Liquor Commission last year issued 150 permits in the city that allowed venues to sell alcohol for a single event. There is also a beer parlour just beyond the city limits and two liquor stores within seven and 12 kilometres of the city.

"I'm hearing people say 'I'd like to have a drink of wine with my meals and I'm not a teetotaller, but I have to think of the safety of my kids,'" Mr. Magnusson said.

He acknowledged that people drink in the privacy of their homes and said the city does not intend - or have the power - to control that.

"That is a personal choice, we just don't want alcohol sold in our city," he said, adding that if sales are approved by referendum in Steinbach, the MLC could come in and set up a store tomorrow and the city would no longer have a say in it.

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