Imbibe While You Stride

Photo Courtesy of JR/Flickr. “Beer Sampler.” CC by 2.0.

The crack of a cue ball against a freshly set rack manages to pierce through the obnoxious chorus of “Let It Go” that is, for reasons that escape both man and God, on the jukebox at the Draught House.

Your urge to assault the person manning the jukebox has recently been subdued by the urge to have a hotdog with a truckload of nonsense piled on top. Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts beckons you to leave the divey warmth and comfort the Draught House provides.

But there’s a problem.

You still have half a beer left, and you’ve already put away two. You’re not drinking the liquid garbage squeezings that is Bud Light. You’re drinking Founder’s Breakfast Stout, an 8.3 percent alcohol by volume meal in a bottle. Sure, you could slam that last half and head for Suzie’s, but you’re the responsible type and know that wouldn’t end well.

If a bipartisan bill recently passed by the Ohio House of Representatives makes its way through the Senate, hypothetically you will have the option to carry that beer out of the bar, onto the streets and onto your next adventure.

The bill would allow cities with populations of over 35,000 to create “outdoor refreshment areas” in districts meeting certain requirements — at least four liquor license holders must be in operation within the half-mile exempt zone — in which drinking outside would be permitted.

According to reports from The Vindicator, Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer, much of the pressure for the bill’s success is coming from those hoping to create an “entertainment district” in preparation for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

The bill would allow other bar-heavy areas, like the Flats in Cleveland, to create similar entertainment districts.

Youngstown would actually qualify for two districts if the bill passed. If the city decided to pursue creating such an area, it would be absurd to think the district would exist anywhere other than Federal Street.

Proponents of the bill argue that its passage would allow business owners in the entertainment districts greater freedom to collaborate on events. Their logic is that if patrons could freely stroll from bar to bar during an outdoor concert or fair, it would likely encourage more interaction with the event and more business across the board for bars, rather than patrons either staying hunkered in at one business or ignoring the bars altogether.

While passage of the bill means Youngstown could create such a district, the obvious remaining consideration is should Youngstown do so?

Open container works on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There are rows of bars and every night is like an outdoor event, with bands and street acts taking to the sidewalks to perform while street vendors sell food and souvenirs to tourists. Bourbon Street is a destination, a must-see for those visiting New Orleans. People want to experience the nightlife in its entirety, so binding them to one venue doesn’t make much sense.

But does that same logic apply to Youngstown, where we have only three months of steamy nights to utilize for such revelry?

Smokers would benefit from the districts year round, as they could take their beers out while they huddle in the cold.

Underage drinkers also could easily benefit from the law. Unless the districts were a strict 21-and-over zone, stopping people from ordering a to-go drink and taking it outside to their underaged friends could be difficult. The police could go around carding individuals they suspect to be underaged, but that would result in an Orwellian “papers please” vibe that likely wouldn’t help promote the district as a fun place to hang out.

Then there’s the litter. Whether the bill would allow people to carry bottles in the open or force bars to serve their drafts in plastic cups, there will be a slew of new street trash to deal with for the city. If you doubt this, hang around Federal Street until closing time on any given weekend in summer and look at the street’s condition. Somehow bottles and cups still manage to make it outside.

Then there’s the considerations that must be taken for those that live downtown. Will those who are paying hefty rents for apartments in the Federal Building, the Erie Terminal and the soon to open Wick Tower really want people milling around and drinking until 2 a.m. every night outside their windows?

Despite all this, an entertainment district on Federal Street could work.

Its success would require collaboration between businesses and the city. If Phelps Street is closed to vehicle traffic — a plan Mayor John McNally has proposed — the open container exemption would essentially turn the street into a giant outdoor patio. This would help keep bar patrons safe and would provide a convenient bottleneck where individuals could be carded and given bracelets before gaining access to the bars.
But what about the bars that aren’t on Phelps?

If bouncers and bartenders follow suit with carding and distributing bracelets to those eligible to drink, it would significantly help aid police in identifying underaged drinkers.

The city could issue permits for those wishing to operate food stands and for street musicians and artists who want to benefit from the foot traffic. This would also provide an incentive for noncarousers to visit downtown in the evening.

Litter and noise would still be an issue. But those are problems in any major city, and most have figured out ways to deal with both. While Youngstown is a far cry from a major city, the potential economic gain for downtown businesses is worth city officials putting their heads together to come up with a solution.

It could work. If the city and the businesses work together, an open container entertainment district could help make Youngstown a destination, even if it’s only fully utilized for a few months out of the year.

Creating the district would be a risk for the city. It could result in a decline in those willing to live downtown. It could result in a backlash by local businesses that don’t want drunks hanging around their front doors until the early hours of the morning. It could revive the seedy feel Federal Street had for so many years.

Risk isn’t inherently bad. Those business owners who took a risk to open a bar, restaurant, coffee shop or apartment complex downtown took a risk on the city. If the bill passes, the city should consider taking a risk on them.