Ohio considering open-container party districts

Ohio lawmakers may allow larger cities to create “ entertainment districts” where open alcohol container laws would not apply — similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans and Fourth Street Live in Louisville.

The bill, if passed, would apply to any city of more than 50,000 residents, meaning in the Miami Valley, Dayton, Kettering, Hamilton and Springfield could create an open-container zone.

One area that meets the criteria for an “entertainment district” is Dayton’s Oregon Historic District.

But any such district — assuming the law passes — would have to be approved by city leaders, and some members of the Dayton City Commission are already aware of opposition.

“We wouldn’t do anything in Oregon unless the businesses and the residents are completely comfortable,” City Commissioner Nan Whaley said. “We’ve gotten to a really good place in the Oregon District, so the commission wouldn’t be interested unless they came together.”

Mike Martin, president of the Oregon District Business Association, says the exemption would not work on Fifth Street because of its proximity to the district’s residential area.

“It sounds good on the outset, but it creates a 24-7 party district that is not good for the neighborhood,” he said. “I think it would attract people who walk around drunk all day.”

In Ohio’s larger cities, the change could allow open containers in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine historic neighborhood and The Banks as well as the Arena District in Columbus.

Bill sponsor Sen. Eric Kearney, D-Cincinnati, said cities could decide where and when patrons can carry open containers. For example, he said, Beale Street in Memphis is a regular street until after 6 p.m., when open containers are allowed.

“It’s not making alcohol more available, just determining where one drinks it,” Kearney said.

Kearney, the Senate minority leader, said the idea came from his younger staffers and said it would create excitement and bring vitality to downtown areas. An area is eligible if four or more bars, wineries or restaurants with liquor licenses are established within 1/4 square mile zone. Kearney said he could see the idea working well in the Oregon District or around Fifth Third Field.

Dayton resident Nick Frazier, who calls himself a “frequent flier” at Oregon District bars, thinks the idea would be fun and would help the Oregon District, with limitations.

“I definitely think it’s a good idea,” Frazier said. “It would definitely draw more people, more revenue. But there would have to be an increase in security. I think it should be strictly a weekend idea — like Friday and Saturday only, and the street is shut down to cars.”

Longtime Oregon District homeowner Kaye Carlisle said she’s very opposed to the proposal, saying residents have engaged in a constant battle to keep bar-goers from overwhelming their residential streets.

“I mean, it is a neighborhood. There are families here,” Carlisle said. “We do notice a difference on the weekend. There are lots of beer cans and bottles in our yard. And if something like this goes through, the problem will become threefold.”

Dayton Deputy Police Chief Robert Chabali said he understands Oregon District residents’ concerns about the potential for increased litter and drunkenness, adding that Dayton Police don’t have extra resources to deal with consistent large crowds.

“In Dayton right now it would be challenging for the city to support that,” Chabali said. “It’s a quality of life issue for the citizens who live in the Oregon District.”

Several Kansas City neighborhoods sought an exemption from Missouri open-container law after lawmakers there in 2005 carved out an exemption for the Power & Light District, a commercially developed block of restaurants and bars.

Lawmakers in Alabama, Colorado and Nebraska recently enacted similar legislation. The Colorado law requires district associations to close off streets through open container areas and limit pedestrian access. To-go beverages must be poured in plastic cups no bigger than 16 oz and bearing the vendor’s name or logo.

Joe Bavaro, co-owner of the Oregon Express bar and restaurant for almost 30 years, is skeptical that the open-container provision would be a positive for the Oregon District. He had questions about the cost of extra police enforcement, the need to close roads and the possibility that people would illegally bring their own coolers and “tailgate” rather than buying drinks at licensed establishments, as the law would require.

“My No. 1 concern is overall safety for our customers and the residents of the Oregon District,” Bavaro said. “And as a business owner, I don’t want them on street. I want them in our establishment; I want them eating pizza and listening to music.”

Sheri Marcellus of Dayton, who was having a beer at Oregon Express last week, said she doesn’t think the open-container zone is a bad idea, but she said neighborhood residents should have the final say, because of the everyday impact they would see.

Kettering City Manager Mark Schwieterman said he can’t picture an open-container district being approved in Kettering, adding that some special events with alcohol already take place in a controlled, roped-off outdoor area near Fraze Pavilion.

Asked about a bar-heavy area near Stroop and Marshall roads that includes Harrigan’s, Elsa’s, Katz Lounge and multiple restaurants, Schwieterman said the city would oppose that, citing past incidents of pedestrians being hit by cars as they crossed streets from one bar to the other.

University of Dayton officials said they are “very unlikely” to support such a move for Brown Street, and Chabali said Dayton police already have concerns about underage drinking and alcohol sales in that area.

Whaley said the law itself is a good tool for urban development, adding that she could see a section of Monument Avenue along RiverScape eventually hosting an open-container zone. Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell said he doesn’t feel strongly either way about the proposed law, but would support it if 51 percent of Dayton residents wanted it.

Republican Sen. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati lent his support to the bill as a cosponsor. He dismissed the idea that entertainment districts would encourage crime and excessive drinking. Seitz said he’d visited New Orleans and Beale Street.

“It was not mass pandemonium — it was nice,” Seitz said. “If this passes, I’ll be able to enjoy my cigarette and drink at the same time for the first time in years.”

Staff Writer Amelia Robinson contributed to this story

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