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Alpena social district could be in place this summer

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Emma Gagnon, an employee at Mangos Tequila Bar, pours a large frozen Margarita on Wednesday. Downtown Alpena could become a social district, which would allow businesses to serve cocktails to customers, who then can take drinks with them and consume them outdoors in common areas owned by the public like parks. Alcohol could also be allowed in some businesses that don’t serve food or drinks.

ALPENA — Visitors to downtown Alpena this summer could soon be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the area, all while having a cocktail in hand.

During its meeting Tuesday, the Alpena Downtown Development Authority voted to establish a social district within the DDA that would allow a person to purchase a cocktail, and drink it on publicly owned property, such as sidewalks, parks, or other common areas. People could take drinks into other businesses, as long as they don’t serve food or drinks, if the owner or manager permits it.

Before the district becomes a reality, the Alpena Municipal Council needs to vote on the matter, possibly as early as later this month. Then, the state’s liquor control commission needs to sign off on the request.

If things go as planned, the district could be in place by late June or early July.

Anne Gentry, the DDA executive director, said the boundaries for the proposed district are established and the use of it will be allowable from 11 a.m. until midnight, Monday through Sunday.

Bar and restaurants that want to participate in the program need to apply for a special permit through the state and use special cups indicating they are allowed to let customers leave the business with their drinks.

The state began allowing the creation of social districts during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, as a way to promote outdoor dining and to bolster business to taverns and restaurants, Gentry said. Since then, 41 social districts, in 25 counties, have formed.

Gentry said she visited several of them and talked to community and business leaders, who claim it helped increase visitation to their downtowns and other business and recreational areas.

“As you can see, any night during the summer, outdoor dining and drinking is popular. This would help create a walkable environment, so if someone wants to go to the winery, and take a walk around the downtown and take in the ambiance they can,” she said. “It will be an additional draw for people to want to come downtown.”

The city and DAA don’t expect many behavioural issues with the public drinking, and intend to purchase the required signage that identifies the district’s boundaries so people know where and when they can legally drink.

DDA board member Matt Wojda said the decision to move forward with a social district was one that wasn’t taken lightly, and many people were involved. He said Police Chief Joel Jett gave his stamp of approval, as did others who are directly or indirectly involved.

“It was reviewed by the committee and run through the police chief, and he is comfortable with the idea,” Wojda said. “We tried to run this through every part of the city that it would impact. This has been a very thorough process and even though we don’t have an end product yet, a lot of work has been done.”

Jett said he understands that residents and people visiting Alpena want to enjoy themselves, and he encourages it, as long as it is within reason.

“I’m all for people having a good time, as long as they do it in a safe, responsible, and legal manner,” Jett said.

If the council decides to move forward with the district, it’s not locked into keeping it as the district can be dissolved at any point. The law is slated to expire at the end of 2024, unless legislatures move to make it permanent, or extend it.

Gentry said she received input from many downtown businesses to gauge their thoughts, views and concerns on the issues, and she said there was a lot of support for the idea. She said in her mind, the district will increase foot traffic, and increase traffic in small businesses that can use it.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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