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Business owners, residents debate public alcohol change

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz The Black Sheep owner Kris Conger pours a beer for a customer on June 4. She said the bar will register with the state to participate in a social district in Alpena, which would allow residents and tourists to drink publicly in limited areas downtown.

ALPENA — Some business owners will not allow alcohol in their stores when a planned so-called “social district” launches in downtown Alpena as early as next month.

But downtown officials remain confident enough business owners will sign on to make the social district — which permits people to purchase an alcoholic beverage at a participating business and consume it at publicly owned parks, sidewalks, and certain other businesses — successful at boosting tourism and business traffic downtown.

The Alpena Downtown Development Authority proposed the idea, the Alpena Municipal Council signed off on it last month, and the state has approved.

Anne Gentry, the DDA executive director, said she has pledges from several establishments that intend to get the needed permits to participate. She said having the district operational by Independence Day remains the goal.

“I have been told that eight have already applied, so I don’t have any concerns about participation, she said. “Plus, any that don’t do it now can do it next year.”

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Shear Envy owner Madison Frishett organizes artificial nail samples while at work on June 3. When city officials open a social district allowing residents and visitors to drink publicly in limited areas in downtown Alpena, she intends to allow customers to consume alcohol while they get their hair or nails done at her shop.

Many business owners in the immediate area support the idea and hope it increases traffic in their businesses and pushes profits upward. Some people, however, have questions and concerns and wonder what more drinking will do to the vibe downtown.

Shear Envy salon owner Madison Frishett said allowing a customer to sip wine while getting his or her hair done could enhance the customer’s experience, especially for special occasions like weddings or bridal showers. She said the social district could add a needed jolt of life to downtown.

“It’s been so dead, especially during and just after COVID, and I think it will help bring more people around,” Frishett said. “There are a ton of new stores, and this could bring people here to walk around and check them out.”

Myers Fashions Etc. owner Ellen Gould said she will not allow open intoxicants in her store because she worried “merchandise could get ruined from someone spilling a drink, or having someone who had a little too much fall and maybe be liable for that. I also have concerns about underage drinking, because I think it will be really easy for that.”

All drinks sold for consumption outside of a participating business must be put in special disposable cups so other business owners know they contain alcohol. Several proprietors told The News they fear those cups will litter the ground, same as cigarette butts do now.

Soaps and Such owner Kelly Bruning said an increase in litter tops her concerns, but more trash receptacles downtown may help soothe that concern.

Bruning said business owners work hard to keep their stores clean inside and out, and they don’t want more trash to pick up.

“We already get a lot of people who leave their cups already, and I think this will make them accumulate even more,” she said.

Gentry said the DDA additional trash receptacles should help limit items not disposed of properly, and she said a plan to recycle the cups may also help reduce the amount of waste.

If people behave responsibly, Bruning said, she will allow alcohol in the store if the cups have lids on them. Still, she worries about the prospects of intoxicated people in her establishment.

“Even now, we get people who come in who act a little silly, but, as long as they aren’t opening up containers, we’ll allow them in,” she said.

The Black Sheep owner Kris Conger said the tavern intends to apply for the needed credentials from the state to participate in the social district, and everyone at the bar is excited. She said finding creative ways to capitalize on the new district could boost profits. One of those ideas, Conger said, includes delivering cocktails to Culligan Plaza.

“All they would have to do is call and order and we could just run across the street,” Conger said. “We’re looking forward to it and I don’t have any reservations about it.”

Butch Bruder, who lives in Rogers City, visited downtown Alpena with his wife and grandchildren on June 7. He said media reports about the social district in Alpena raised his eyebrows and curiosity. Bruder said he travels often, including to places where he enjoys outdoor dining and cocktails, and he likes the concept of the social district, but questions whether issues will surface.

“I like it, but I just don’t know about carrying a drink from one place to another and what types of problems that could bring,” he said. “It wouldn’t stop me from bringing my grandkids downtown, but I just wonder if there will be some situations that arise that you don’t expect.”

Some in Alpena fear more public alcohol consumption will lead to more public intoxication and crime.

In some places where social districts run now, that hasn’t been the case so far, police officials say. Ludington police say that town’s district hasn’t presented a problem.

“We haven’t noticed anything that we could attribute to the social district,” Capt. Steve Wietrzykowski, of the Ludington Police Department, said. “We are still sort of playing things by ear and things can change. We will change accordingly. But right now, there hasn’t been an issue.”

Trisha Keil, from Alpena, said encouraging drinking in public alarms her. She said Alpena has more to offer than booze, and town leaders should promote things like natural resources and other activities.

“It seems like we have a bar on every corner in Alpena and that’s not good enough,” Keil said. “Now, they want to let people drink while shopping? It seems like a recipe for disaster to me. Why don’t they push for people to enjoy our Great Lake or our forests and trails? It just seems like everything has to include drinking now.”

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