On Opening Day, Reds fans roamed the streets outside the bars and restaurants at The Banks, beers in hand, during the Reds Community Fund Charity Block Party.
Could that festival atmosphere become commonplace there, the way it is on Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans?
Maybe, if a bill that would allow Ohio cities to create “outdoor refreshment areas,” where drinkers would be exempt from the state’s open container law, is adopted.
The Ohio House passed the bill at the end of March, and a Senate committee passed its own version Tuesday. A final version would need Gov. John Kasich’s signature before going into effect.
If the bill becomes law, Cincinnati City Council would have a 30-day waiting period after proposing a district to allow for public input, said Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Clifton Heights, one of the sponsors of the House measure. Under the proposals, cities and townships of more than 35,000 people could create up to two open-container zones.
What could such a district look like? A lot of that depends on the city or township. Under the proposals, a district could be no more than a half-mile square, and visitors who chose to drink outdoors would have to buy alcohol from businesses within that area.
But other requirements would be set by individual municipalities. A city or township would be required to designate the area’s boundaries, signage needs, hours of operation, plans for public safety personnel and sanitation, and to require that drinks be served only in plastic containers.
“We were very careful about putting language into the bill … that says the things you have to address,” Driehaus said, who shares primary sponsorship of the House bill with Rep. Louis “Bill” Blessing III, R-Colerain Township. “That’s all qualified at the local level, but the legislation says you have to address these things just to make sure it’s done very thoroughly.”
Rocky Merz, Cincinnati’s director of communications, said those logistics have not yet been worked out. All are to be determined if the legislation passes, he said.
The Banks was the potential Cincinnati location most discussed In interested party meetings with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the city of Cincinnati, the Reds, 3CDC and other stakeholders, Driehaus said.
“My expectations are that that would be the first (district), but it’s up to the city of Cincinnati,” she said.
The owners and developers of The Banks testified in Columbus in favor of the bill.
“We believe that this designation will allow us to offer outdoor events and offerings like we have never been able to do before,” said Libby Korosec, spokesperson for The Banks.
Korosec said Banks personnel have not yet communicated with the city about the regulations they’d need to put in place if the bill is adopted and a district is established there.
How open container works elsewhere: Beale Street
With local plans not yet in place, Cincinnati could look to other cities to see what those areas might look like.
Memphis, Tennessee’s famous Beale Street, for example, has allowed outdoor drinking for decades. Revelers can have open containers inside a set district, a three-block section of the street that’s closed to vehicle traffic most of the time. (It opens on weekday mornings, to allow deliveries to the bars and restaurants there.)
Jon Shivers is director of Beale Street Management, a “quasi-city entity” that runs the district.
Beale Street has allowed open containers since the late 1980s, Shivers said. He doesn’t believe it creates additional problems.
“It’s the normal stuff that you’d have in any district of bars or restaurants,” he said of the issues he sees in Memphis. “We’re a street of 20 to 25 bars and restaurants in one strip. Even if we didn’t have outdoor drinking, we’d have the same issues. There’s going to be drunk people; there’s going to be fights. But is it any worse because of open container? I don’t think so.”
For a new open container district, Shivers thinks figuring out the logistics – such as how to keep drinkers from wandering out of the area – would be the biggest initial challenge.
On Beale Street, sawhorse-style barricades keep cars out; pedestrians are free to roam. Signs posted at any spot where patrons could leave the district lets them know when they can’t take alcohol any farther.
Shivers said Beale Street does hire extra security when foot traffic is higher. On Fridays and Saturdays during the warmer months, generally April through October, the area is open only to those age 21 and up after 9 p.m. Those nights, he has upwards of 30 security guards on the street – versus the five or so he’d have during an afternoon – including guards set up at entrances to ID people coming in.
Keeping juveniles off the street helps eliminate potential problems, Shivers said. “They don’t have anything to do besides possibly cause trouble.”
Bars can sell beer at carts parked in front of their business, though tavern employees can’t walk up and down the street selling. By Tennessee law, liquor can’t be sold outside of a four-walled business, he said, but some bars have takeout-style windows for beer and liquor.
It’s up to individual bars and restaurant owners whether they’ll allow drinks from other establishments inside, Shivers said.
No glass bottles or cans are allowed, so customers with bottles or glasses inside a bar must either finish those drinks or put them in plastic cups before they head out, Shivers said.
How open container works here: special events
In Cincinnati, an organization hosting a special event such as Opening Day’s Block Party on The Banks – in this case, the Reds Community Fund – files for a special event permit for a defined area. (Driehaus said her guess is that such permits would not be needed in established outdoor refreshment areas, though she could not say for sure.) Then a group of city departments – including police, transportation, engineering and fire – come together to decide on the rules, according to Sgt. Greg Lewton of the police department’s special events unit. Logistics such as trash cans and cleanup are included in the initial plan, he said.
The area where open containers are allowed is defined by existing structures, such as buildings and walls, with bike racks or other barricades added at open points, Lewton said. Signs on each side of the borders let revelers know that they can’t take alcohol out – or bring it in.
“Of course there are people who will wander out” with drinks, Lewton said. “They’re either caught by volunteers or officers patrolling the event site,” typically without incident.
With current special events permits, the designated area is treated like an individual bar. That means event goers can’t take drinks from the street party into a bar or drinks from a bar into the street party, Lewton said. Ohio law prohibits taking alcohol from one bar to another.
Security at open container events depends on the specific event’s demographics, expected crowd size and type of activity, Lewton said. On Opening Day, 10 officers patrolled the Block Party, which Lewton believes has an attendance of 8,000 to 10,000. Undercover vice officers and Ohio Division of Liquor Control officers also monitored the crowd, he said.
Big events where open containers are allowed typically bring increased intoxication-related issues – an uptick in medical runs and injuries from falling and fights, Lewton said (though his officers didn’t respond to any fights during this year’s Opening Day Block Party). When officers encounter an intoxicated person, they typically just work to get him or her home safely, Lewton said, only pursuing a disorderly conduct arrest if the individual is causing harm or serious annoyance.
Lewton said he isn’t sure if the proposed open refreshment areas will be set up like the current special event permits.
“I’m not sure how the law is going to be applied,” he said. “I think it’s going to take some legal studies and a gathering of all of us (city entities) to see how it would work.”
“My expectation is that we will do this in a pretty thorough way in Cincinnati, cross the Ts, dot the Is, to make sure it’s a benefit,” Driehaus said.
She cites economic vitality and public perception as key ways cities might benefit.
“The whole purpose is to create some excitement in these districts,” Driehaus said.
“When you create districts like this, I think you send a signal, especially to people that want to live in a place that’s vibrant and creative,” she added. “There’s a culture in Cincinnati that people want to be a part of.”