Residents, Niles City Council members urge movement on creation of social district

NILES — On Monday evening, the Niles City Council hosted a committee off the whole meeting virtually to discuss the social district proposed by Niles Main Street/Downtown Development Authority.

DDA member Justin Flagel outlined the social district proposal for the city council as giving bars and restaurants within the defined district the ability to sell an alcoholic beverage in a one-time use, marked cup to consume within a designated area and time in downtown.

“We are not looking for a party atmosphere,” Flagel said. “We are looking for something to draw people to downtown Niles. It will make us unique in the Michiana area, and it will help people support our businesses and bring money into the economy.”

At the previous city council meeting on July 13, an ordinance committee meeting was hosted virtually to review the request from the DDA.

“Since that time period, the city attorney, Mr. [Robert] Landgraf, has had time to do some research, and it doesn’t actually require an ordinance to establish these districts. It would be done by council resolution,” said city administrator Ric Huff.

The resolution could make its way onto the Niles City Council’s next agenda for discussion and consideration on Aug. 10.

“I do think if we are going to do this, timing is important,” Huff said. “To take as much advantage of the summer weather as we can.”

City council members John DiCostanzo and Travis Timm both expressed their support of the social district and commons areas through the meeting.

I see it as an urgent matter,” DiCostanzo said. “I think we should enact it as quickly as we can to take advantage of the opportunity to bring more people downtown.”
DiCostanzo said social district could bring more cash into businesses downtown impacted from COVID-19 mandated shut downs.

Public works director Joe Ray voiced concerns about including specific roads running through the proposed DDA district becoming the social district.

Ray noted certain roads were federal aid eligible roadways, which would not allow them for certain types of activities. An exemption was enacted for restaurants and retail establishments to expand into the sidewalks during COVID-19 precautionary mandates, limiting the number of people inside an establishment. According to Ray, the exemption is temporary and would expire on Dec. 1. The roads effected could include Main Street, Front Street and Second Street.

“It’s just something we should probably look into because normally these environmental review processes are kind of painful,” Ray said.

Lisa Croteau, director of marketing and administration for the DDA, said she was happy to do some more research.

“I believe it is different than the social district and common area we are talking about,” Croteau said.

Bryan Williams, owner of The Brass Eye at 205 N. Second St., said the social district would not be closing off any roads.

“Everything would still be limited to sidewalks and normal crosswalks for now,” Williams said. “We have talked about maybe doing something like that in the future, for right now we’re just talking about people staying on sidewalks and getting to and from other places.”

Another business owner from downtown Niles, Sarah Brittin, owner of Pizza Transit at 215 E. Main St., spoke up to support the social district.

“I think it would be great for those of our businesses that don’t have liquor licenses,” Brittin said. “I don’t own my location. We don’t have a liquor license because we don’t want to tie it to the building, so it’s a really fun way to be able to offer [alcoholic beverages] for our customers who would like to have a drink.”

Brittin also spoke about creating more movement between the shops and restaurants downtown.

“I think we are becoming a food and drink destination, so it would encourage people from outside our community to come and enjoy what we have downtown,” she said.

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