New Way to Save Downtown: Open-Air Public Drinking, Longer Bar Hours

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Bourbon Street, or something sorta like it, may be coming to a city near you. To create more vibrant nightlife scenes and bring faded downtown districts back to life, cities around the U.S. are drunk on the concept of pedestrian areas where it’s OK for crowds to stroll the streets with alcoholic beverages in hand. Maybe even a cigarette too.

In Ohio, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, there’s a good chance that legislators will approve a bipartisan bill that would allow for open containers in entertainment districts in larger cities such as Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. Supporters of the bill point to Memphis’s Beale Street, which became Tennessee‘s largest tourism destination in the decades after it closed to automobile traffic and began allowing pedestrians to drink in the streets while browsing and listening to music, as the precedent they hope to follow.

The goal isn’t merely to boost businesses catering to tourists and late-night revelers, but also to revitalize entire neighborhoods near the party scene. “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,” Ohio state senator Eric Kearney told the Enquirer.

If the bill is approved, “This would allow a festival atmosphere, an open atmosphere, much like the one on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis,” Kearney explained to the Associated Press.

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Kearney isn’t alone in his quest to revitalized downtowns through the creation of mini-French Quarter neighborhoods. Last summer, the city council in Lincoln, Neb., approved a first-ever entertainment district in the West Haymarket area that would serve as a “a kind of giant sidewalk café,” as the Lincoln Journal Star put it. “People will be allowed to walk around, drink in hand, in the district.”

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, where visitors come across alcohol and nightlife seemingly at every corner, the city council recently approved that alcohol could be sold and consumed in the open-air development of shops and restaurants that’s been dubbed Container Park. As the Review Journal noted, what makes the setting unusual (even for Vegas) is that open containers are OK even though the area was created to be family-friendly—there’s even a playground in the center of project.

In other cities, proposals are being considered that would allow more drinking just by expanding the hours bars could be open. There’s been plenty of discussion in Orlando, for instance, about the possibility of bars closing at 3 a.m. rather than 2 a.m. as currently mandated. Some are skeptical that an extra hour of drinking will improve the “culture” of the city, as supporters of the change have argued. “Proponents would have you believe that a 3 a.m. cutoff for booze sales would entice some sort of big-spending cultured crowd to visit the City Beautiful,” Orlando Sentinel columnist wrote. “Let’s be honest. Later drinking hours aren’t what’s keeping folks away from downtown.”

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Even as there seems to be growing acceptance to the theory of more drinking as downtown’s salvation, at least one city with notoriously lax alcoholic consumption laws is reconsidering the wisdom of almost-anything-goes booze policies. Though many locals bristle at any restrictions on how, when and where they imbibe, a group that includes business owners and the sheriff are pushing for limits on public drinking in Butte’s historic area. Right now, folks can drink on the street 24/7. According to the Wall Street Journal, a a proposal on the table in Butte would ban public drinking from … 2 a.m. to 8 a.m.

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