Niles considers creating social drinking district downtown

NILES — An evening out in Niles could soon include a cocktail to be enjoyed with a walk through downtown, enjoying the shops and company of others in the open air.

A social district in downtown Niles was presented to and discussed by the ordinance committee immediately following the regular Niles City Council meeting Monday evening. The Downtown Development Authority/Main Street Initiative’s recommendation to establish a social district was met with positivity from each member on the committee.

A social district would allow for licensed liquor establishments to sell alcoholic beverages in specially marked cups for patrons to leave with. Patrons could then enjoy their beverage outside within the boundaries of the social district’s common area. The vision proposed by the DDA would include an outdoor common area, connecting the licensed liquor establishments in downtown to one another, and inviting more people outdoors into the downtown Niles area.

A meeting of the committee of the whole has been scheduled to coincide with the city council meeting on July 27 to further discuss the matter.

Monday night’s meeting included the city’s ordinance committee, and was led by council member Daniel VandenHeede. Members of the ordinance committee also include council members John DiCostanzo, Gretchen Bertschy and William Weimer.

The meeting was slated as a work session by city administrator Ric Huff to discuss the proposal by the DDA moving forward.

“It would not necessarily mean that the entire district is an open container district,” Huff said.

According to Huff, the DDA is seeking to approve the DDA district as a social district with common areas for adults to enjoy alcoholic beverages during approved dates and times.

The city council would have the authority to approve and revoke the common areas, and times allowable for the consumption of alcohol openly within the areas.

Lisa Croteau, director of marketing and administration for the DDA, attended the meeting to clarify the vision for downtown.

Croteau said the DDA is proposing the social district and common area be the Main Street District of downtown. She said the district would connect the alcohol vending businesses downtown from Iron Shoe Distillery up to the former Ready Theater property, down to Second Street to include The Brass Eye, as well as Front Street. The Ready Theater property was included as the DDA hoped it would make it more appealing to developers to be included in the district.

With the heavy COVID-19 mandates closing down restaurants and bars, and limiting their capacities, many have taken a substantial financial blow since March.

“COVID-19 has really done a number on all of the small communities [in Michigan], and it’s scary,” Croteau said. “I truly believe this legislation was not going forward as quickly as we hoped until COVID-19 happened.”

Council member DiCostanzo looked at the proposal as both a business decision, as well as a way for adults to enjoy the downtown area.

“I think it sounds great to me,” he said. “It sounds to me, according to what Lisa says, that it would be an urgent requirement to try and jumpstart and keep the businesses in the black. I think it’s something we should put some effort into and some urgency.”

Concerns of it becoming out of control were addressed by Croteau and DDA member Justin Flagel. The DDA has spoken with cities throughout Ohio, which already has legislation in place for social districts.

“I’s not open carry of alcohol,” Flagel said. “You have to purchase it at a licensed business in the district. You’re not bringing your own booze or anything like that.”

In his discussions with cities throughout Ohio, Flagel said crime did not increase with the introduction of a social district.

“Whether it be crime, fighting, the usual things that come up as concerns, 100 percent across the board no additional problems were reported in any of these cities,” Flagel said. “The responsible adults remained responsible adults, and the people who cause problems are the one who are already causing problems. Across the board, there was not an increase of problems.”

Council member Weimer spoke up to say he is not a drinker, but was receptive to seeing an ordinance for downtown.

City attorney Robert Landgraf Jr. said it would take time to draft an ordinance. He hoped to look at model ordinances and speak with other cities implementing similar districts. Huff agreed, saying the Michigan Municipal League would provide further guidance.

“It sounds like we have pretty unanimous support for the idea here,” VandenHeede said. “I do think it’s going to take some time to craft an ordinance. Unfortunately, it’s not something we can put right on the agenda.”

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