Grand Rapids may be known colloquially as Beer City, but visitors should plan to avoid walking between hip bars and eateries with a pint of local IPA, at least for the foreseeable future.
Despite many cities around the country loosening restrictions on open containers in certain districts with a heavy concentration of pubs, local bar owners and other stakeholders say there’s continued resistance to the idea in West Michigan — not to mention it’s illegal under current state law.
The open container district is a concept downtown bar and restaurant owner Mark Sellers has revisited time and again on his travels.
The founder and owner of Barfly Ventures LLC — which operates the HopCat, Stella’s, Grand Rapids Brewing Co. and The Waldron Public House brands — has traveled to multiple cities where local laws allow weekend revelers to purchase alcohol in one establishment and move freely to other bars in the area while imbibing.
Over the years, Sellers has floated a similar idea for the Ionia Street corridor in downtown Grand Rapids, where he owns three bars and a private event space. But the concept never gained steam.
“People use the argument that we have to protect the kids,” Sellers said. “It’s a very powerful argument and the politicians run terrified. It takes a lot of pressure and lobbying. It would be great in a controlled way. Lots of places do it in a controlled manner.”
Michigan’s liquor laws currently forbid a local municipality from creating a district where open containers would be permissible.
Nonetheless, the trend of open container districts has taken off in cities around the country, according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal.
Municipalities ranging from Kansas City, Mo., Iowa City, Iowa, and Duluth, Ga. have all created districts that allow open containers of alcohol. The WSJ report also noted real estate developers have been leading the push for land use and zoning changes that allow the districts, citing increased traffic and opportunities for tenants.
Sellers sees good reason for commercial developers to favor the open container areas, noting that his HopCat craft beer bar in Kansas City is located in a district that allows outdoor drinking on weekend nights. The area is densely populated with bars all located within a high-rent area.
“It’s pretty good for the economy,” Sellers said.
Commercial development firms active in West Michigan declined to comment for this report, saying the issue largely wasn’t on their radar.
ENHANCING PUBLIC SPACES
That commercial real estate developers and others declined to comment did not come as a shock to Kris Larson, the president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the private nonprofit that administers the city’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and works on large-scale planning efforts.
Larson said his organization broadly supports the idea of creating such a district in downtown Grand Rapids, but DGRI isn’t actively lobbying for it at this time. Still, he believes that much of the stigma around public drinking stems from Prohibition-era laws, as well as religious and cultural beliefs.
“You’ve got, generally speaking, these outdated concepts or ideologies associated with the consumption of alcohol in a public space,” Larson said, referring specifically to many of the liquor laws dating back nearly a century.
Larson told MiBiz that much of his organization’s work focuses on enhancing public spaces, which can be achieved by loosening zoning laws and other regulations that relate to the consumption of alcohol in public spaces.
DGRI and other stakeholders fought an uphill battle in 2013 when it successfully lobbied to change regulations to allow restaurants to set up outside tables directly on the sidewalk rather than in an enclosed area. Additionally, DGRI hosts the summer Movies in the Park series in downtown Grand Rapids where of-age attendees are permitted to bring their own alcoholic beverages.
“We don’t think that people need to be in cages because they’re going to have a beer or a glass of wine,” Larson said. “Society can function otherwise. We’ve now made progress in that regard. We have cafes that don’t have to have these hard and fast fences that quite frankly, barrier off a portion of your public realm.”
Likewise, Michael Brower, a liquor law attorney at Stariha & Brower PLC and co-owner of Pigeon Hill Brewing Co. LLC and 18th Amendment Spirits Co. in Muskegon, believes that if implemented properly and used mostly around large events, an open drinking district could be “phenomenal.”
“I think about Muskegon’s Art Fair, which is a prime example of when this would be helpful,” Brower said of the annual event held around the Fourth of July. “We’ve got most of downtown … shut down and full of vendors and people. It’s one of the brewery’s busiest weekends. I remember walking through the Art Fair this year thinking to myself as I saw someone with an open container, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that legally?’”
Not all stakeholders are inclined to agree, however.
Jackson VanDyke, co-owner of Grand Rapids-based Harmony Brewing Co. LLC and its offshoot Harmony Hall along the city’s burgeoning Bridge Street corridor, has two major concerns if laws change regarding public consumption of alcohol.
Largely, VanDyke said that a district allowing patrons to drink on the street between stops at bars could result in the potential for over-consumption and create issues for brewery staff. To a lesser extent, VanDyke expressed concern that such an initiative may lead to declining sales as patrons have less reason to stay in one place.
“I don’t see a benefit,” VanDyke said. “If I was walking from New Holland Brewing (located about two blocks east) to Harmony Hall, it would be fine to walk a block without a drink. I don’t see how it would add to my experience.”
The Wall Street Journal report notes that many of the cities that have public drinking districts have worked to offer a variety of options to maximize safety and minimize incidents, including free overnight parking in downtown parking garages.
Generally, most cities that have established areas for public drinking only operate them on weekends during late-night hours when streets are shut down to motor vehicle traffic. The areas typically only extend for a couple blocks with minimal access points.
Law enforcement officers are typically posted at those access points to ensure that everyone entering the area is of legal age.
That law enforcement and not the establishments themselves check identification in these districts serves as another of the concept’s selling points, according to Sellers with BarFly Ventures.
“It actually works better to control underage drinking. That’s one of the reasons I like it,” Sellers said. “It’s a win-win for everybody, except for minors.”
But the question of who gets to drink in public and where they get to do it comes down to “societal norms” and issues of class, according to DGRI’s Larson.
“The stigmatism associated with homelessness and alcoholism, in many ways, has clouded our understanding that 99 percent of people can be trusted with a beer or glass of wine in their hands,” Larson said. “In some ways, it’s OK for someone to sit at a cafe on Monroe Center and have a glass of wine. That’s economic development. But if you sit at the bench right next to the person at the table with a tall bottle of beer, that’s criminal.”