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Alpena DDA considers creating social district

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Vicki Sylvester-Keller, left, and Vicky Timm enjoy a glass of wine at the Thunder Bay Winery on Wednesday. The winery and other businesses that sell alcohol could become part of a social district that would allow for drinks to be consumed outdoors in public places like parks or other businesses within the district’s boundaries.

ALPENA– The City of Alpena and the Alpena Downtown Development Authority are considering making the downtown a social district.

A social district would allow businesses to sell alcohol to customers who could consume them while out and about within the established district boundaries.

Hopes are the new district is established in time for the summer tourism season.

The law to allow for municipalities to create social districts passed last summer as a way to help restaurant and bar owners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anne Gentry, the DDA executive director, said a person could purchase a drink, and freely move in and out of most places within the district. She said folks could enjoy a drink at Culligan Plaza or Pocket Park and take them in and out of other businesses that allow it.

A person would not be able to take their beverage into a restaurant that doesn’t have a liquor license, but could visit a store that doesn’t sell alcohol, as long as the owner approves.

Bar and restaurants who want to participate in the social district, will need to apply with the state, but Gentry said so far, all of the bars and restaurants who are in or near downtown support the idea.

She said she will begin reaching out to other store owners to get their thoughts. If there is ample support, the issue will go before the Alpena Municipal Council for approval.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission also needs to sign off on the district and the businesses who want to take part.

Gentry said the local governing body can set restrictions on the district such as where and when people can consume alcohol in public.

“We could set it so it’s just the weekend, set certain hours, or have it all day long,” she said.

Gentry said more than 50 communities around the state now have social districts, and she has talked to those in charge of them and received good news.

“The feedback that we have received from some of the communities is that it has worked out for everyone,” she said.

Fresh Palate owner Eric Peterson said a social district will help to push the area forward and help to bring more people downtown and into businesses. He said others — like the street performers who play on Friday nights — would also benefit from the added foot traffic.

“I think that type of space downtown would create more tourism because of the interactiveness of all of the businesses working together to make something new, and cool, and unique,” Peterson said. “It is happening in many other cities, so if we didn’t do it, we would be way behind the ball.”

Thunder Bay Winery employee Cathy Garant said the idea of creating a special district that is more liberal on alcohol consumption is a good idea because more people could visit downtown and probably stay longer.

“I think we would have more people coming in because they are curious about different places in Alpena,” Garant said. “I think it would be good for the town and help make the downtown even more lively.”

Steve Szucz, who owns the Noise and Toys record store, said he will fully support the DDA’s effort to establish a social district and he would allow customers to bring their drink into his store without hesitation.

“I am 100% for this,” he said. “I think it is a great idea. Go for it, Make it happen.”

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