City of Buchanan approves downtown social district

BUCHANAN – Buchanan’s economic development efforts got a big boost Monday night as City Commissioners approved the establishment of a social district in the downtown area. Commissioners expressed hope that the move will bring more people downtown and more business to the city.

Community Development Director Rich Murphy outlined not only what the social district will entail, but also gave a recap of the work done by Andrews University students over the last four months. Students presented their findings at a late April community gathering and have also established a new website to showcase what they found.

As approved by the commission, the general social district boundaries will be the duck pond and Lehman’s Brewery on the east, businesses on the north side of Front Street and the B & W Olde Village Inn on the north, Oak Street on the west and the Common area on the south. Businesses on the south side of Front from Red Bud to Days are excluded.

Social districts are allowed under a state law approved in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was and is to support restaurants by allowing people to consume alcohol off premises in shared common areas. Participating restaurants will be able to sell alcoholic beverages in special cups that can be consumed outdoors in the district.

Murphy first brought the idea of a social district to the commission on April 12. He said Monday that he consulted with Police Chief Tim Ganus in developing the social district map. For his part, Ganus said he felt very confident that everyone can be kept safe with the plan as it has been presented.

Besides Ganus, Murphy said he has consulted with local business owners and gathered advice from Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber President Arthur Havlicek. Havlicek has helped other communities such as St. Joseph which recently got state approval of their district.

Murphy said that around 50 communities around the state have established social districts in their downtowns including other communities in Berrien County like Bridgman, Niles and St. Joseph. The process requires state approval of a social district plan and map followed by individual businesses applying to get their social district license.

“Once the district is approved and licensees apply, then management and maintenance rules are set up and it goes live,” he said.

Before the commission vote, the social district idea got support from two residents in public comments. Retired county commissioner Don Ryman said he favored the concept and Michigan Gateway CEO Michael Rowland also gave his support. He noted that his organization has supported projects in the city since 1977.

Commissioners had some questions about maintenance of the district but were overall positive about establishing it.

“I’ve heard nothing but positive support for the district,” Mayor Sean Denison said. “I don’t know what kind of magic bullet it is, it probably isn’t, but it’s one more piece for people wanting to come downtown or businesses wanting to invest.”

Murphy also reported to commissioners on the study done by Andrews University students over the last four months and the status of the master plan update.

He thanked everyone again for attending the late April public forum which was held outside in a rainstorm at the Common. He reported that students have submitted a written report of their findings and created a new website that has been turned over the city.

That website is nicestplacetowalk.com and gives people an overview of the students’ findings, a copy of the final report and images of what Buchanan could look like in the future. “The nicest place to walk” title is a play on of the city being named the “nicest place to live in America” last year.

“The ultimate goal is to kick start a wave of improvement and redevelopment,” Murphy said. “We have had over 2,000 visits to the website so far. It’s definitely making an impression on the online community as we show the investment potential in Buchanan. It’s an opportunity to open dialogue with new investors, residents and business owners.”

He asked commissioners to hold a work session with him in coming weeks to start work on redevelopment opportunities. He outlined a series of steps including projects that wouldn’t cost a lot and building economic development incentives to bigger projects such as splash pad, extending the trail and renovating Mill Alley.

Commissioners liked his ideas and expect to have a work session on both economic/community development issues and the new 2021-22 budget during the week of June 7.

With the master plan, he reported that the planning commission voted May 11 to forward the final master plan draft to the city commission. Monday, the commission voted to distribute it to the public. People will have the chance to review it before a Sept. 14 public hearing before the planning commission and a Sept. 27 final vote by the commission.

In other action at Monday’s commission meeting:

  • Commissioners gave approval to the Avery Brown Classic at Victory Park July 3 and the closing of a block of Oak Street around Harger Park during the Memorial Day parade for children’s activities.
  • Made three appointments and reappointments to the Design Review Committee. City Clerk Barbara Pitcher also outlined her work in improving board processes and policies.
  • Accepted the bid from Affordable Paving to resurface the basketball courts at Victory Park for $9,250.
  • Accepted the retirement of J.T. Adkerson as the public services director, posted the position and approved extra pay to Mike Baker to be the interim director. Adkerson, whose career also includes many years as a police officer in the city, retires June 18.
  • Renewed one adult use and one medical marijuana processing permits for Red Bud Roots at 455 Post Road.
  • Approved adding four “no U-turn” signs on Front Street between Red Bud and Oak.

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