CINCINNATI -- Better known for loosening inhibitions, booze may soon be used to lubricate the wheels of economic development in some Ohio communities.
A growing number of cities nationwide, including Memphis, Louisville and Montgomery, Ala., allow people to openly drink on the streets, a la New Orleans, to encourage economic development.
Now, a bipartisan "open container" bill giving that option to Ohio cities is given a good chance of passage in coming months. Sponsoring Democratic state Sen. Eric Kearney is tweaking it after a committee hearing, with a committee vote likely late this year or when the General Assembly returns in March.
It has strong support from the Ohio Wholesale Wine and Beer Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the state capital, said Republican state Sen. Bill Seitz, a bill co-sponsor and ardent supporter.
"It would be the first time in years that I can enjoy a drink and a cigarette at the same time," Seitz said.
Memphis' Beale Street is the ultimate success story. The hotbed of blues music died in the 1960s as businesses and residents left downtown for the suburbs, according to Leslie Gower, spokeswoman for the Downtown Memphis Commission, a scenario that also played out in Cincinnati. But in the 1980s a revitalization plan closed Beale Street to traffic and opened it to alcohol-carrying pedestrians, bringing it back to life as a destination for live music.
"Beale Street is Tennessee's top tourism destination, and that's largely because of the alcohol," Gower said. "It goes into creating a festive environment."
Ohio's three Cs, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, already have had some success with urban revitalization, but this would give them another tool, Kearney said.
"Over-the-Rhine (in Cincinnati) is vibrant, but it's not as crowded as it once was," he said, as an example. "Just think how the nightlife would feed into the residential areas, which would feed into the retail areas, which would cause the whole area to experience more success."
More than a dozen Ohio cities and townships would be able to create up to three open-container districts each, depending on their population. Cincinnati, just shy of the 300,000 population threshold for three districts, could have two
Communities are just beginning to learn about the bill and what it could mean for them. So far, local leaders and bar owners seem supportive of the state giving communities the right to create open-container districts.
"There's no downside," said Julie Calvert, spokeswoman for the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It allows cities to make their own determinations for how and where they want to do it."
Whether neighborhood business owners and residents actually want to be part of a district is less clear. Bar owners question how the flow of alcohol would be contained within the district and whether closed streets would jam traffic.
"The devil's in the details," said Jim Moehring, owner of Holy Grail at the Banks in Cincinnati. "It's going to be tricky to manage."
Members of the Downtown Residents Council have mixed views on Kearney's bill, according to President Craig Hudson.
"Anything that creates more activity we're in favor of, but from a trash and rowdiness standpoint there was some concern," he said.
Even bar patrons don't see open-container laws changing their entertainment plans.
"I could see it being kind of cool, but I don't think it would make me more likely to come to the Banks," said Brian Albrecht, 25, of Oxford. He works downtown and sometimes visits the riverfront entertainment district.
Picking just two open-container districts could become a challenge if neighborhoods warm up to the idea.
Cincinnati already has eight community entertainment districts, a designation that opens up more liquor licenses for about $1,500 each instead of $25,000 each
Still, some people aren't sure their neighborhood is ready for public drinking.
The $300 million-plus redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine might make it an obvious candidate for an open-container district, but Peter Hames, president of the community council, says not so fast.
Neighborhood development includes condos and apartments above many of the first-floor shops, restaurants and bars.
"We don't want to be an entertainment district, in my opinion," Hames said. "We want to be a really nice mixed-use neighborhood."
Beale Street has no residents to worry about, according to Gower. There are some offices above bars, but otherwise the 1.8-mile street is all about the music and entertainment.
The Alley was the first open-container district in Alabama, sought in 2010 to bring and keep people in downtown Montgomery after business hours.
Buildings on either side of the two-block stretch were bought by the city and resold for development as first-floor entertainment with housing above.
Developers are now working on building more apartments at one end of the Alley.
"We have seen increased attendance numbers for all downtown events," said Dawn Hathcock, vice president of the Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We are also getting positive response from meeting planners."
Early results were positive enough that Alabama quickly passed legislation to allow other cities to create open-container districts.
The size of open-container districts varies widely, from Louisville's one-block Fourth Street Live to several cities in Montana that allow public drinking anywhere. Erie, Pa., has a 70-block downtown open-container district, and Savannah, Ga., allows open containers in its historic district.
Cities have settled on different approaches, as well. Louisville's Fourth Street Live, a private development of mostly chain restaurants and stores, has a detailed dress code banning "excessively torn clothing" and forbidding men from wearing shirts that are either sleeveless or too long, among other restrictions.
Beale Street uses barriers and police cars to mark the boundaries of the entertainment area, and no one under 21 is allowed inside after dark. After several fights earlier this year, dozens of security cameras were added.
Most communities allow traffic through the district part of the time, becoming pedestrian-only on evenings or weekends. Many require drinks to be in plastic containers.
If Ohio lawmakers pass Kearney's bill allowing open-container districts, it likely won't take effect until late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
Time for local communities to size up the possibilities and risks, and decide whether they want in.
The Cincinnati Enquirer