MOUNT VERNON – City council on Tuesday heard an initial proposal to create a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) in downtown Mount Vernon, which would allow residents to drink outdoors in certain areas at certain times, pending city approval.
Main Street Mount Vernon Director Anthony McNeal presented the idea during council's Planning and Zoning committee meeting. He said establishing a DORA would stimulate the local economy by increasing foot traffic downtown and removing barriers for businesses and organizations to host events.
“It’s not just a free-for-all, go get your refreshment, you can walk downtown with beverages from these different establishments at any point in time,” McNeal explained. “This DORA would be specific days, hours and/or events, so you would have to then go and get permission to hold the event and designate this weekend as a DORA weekend.”
Ohio lawmakers first approved the creation of DORAs in 2015. Since then, municipalities in 19 counties have approved DORAs, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce. This would be Knox County’s first DORA, if Mount Vernon's council were to eventually pass a resolution or ordinance approving it.
McNeal’s proposed DORA encompasses 15 square blocks in downtown Mount Vernon. The 45-acre area is bordered by Chestnut Street to the north; Gay Street to the east; Phillips Drive and Heritage Center Park to the south; and Mechanic Street to the west.
This area covers all downtown establishments that have A-1-A or A-1-C liquor licenses, McNeal said. DORA events hosted near the river at Heritage Center Park could attract bikers using the Kokosing Gap Trail, he added.
If council were to approve the creation of this DORA, it would not mean the entire area would be exempt from open-carry laws 24/7. It would mean that organizations or businesses could approach council in the future with an event plan, and if council approved the plan, residents could drink outdoors in certain areas of the DORA for certain hours during that event.
Businesses would not have to worry about setting up fences or obtaining temporary outdoor liquor permits, which Stein Brewing Company Events Coordinator Dena Hess-McKinstry said often prevents people from holding events downtown.
“This would just really reduce the need for applying for so many different licenses to get these events going, which is a deterrent for some people because they just don’t know how to do that,” Hess-McKinstry told council. “It’s not a free-for-all, it’s not like you can come downtown and bring your alcohol whenever you want to. There are designated time frames.”
Establishing a DORA would also help keep beverage money in Mount Vernon, Hess-McKinstry added. When organizations host events now, they typically have to partner with an outside vendor to provide drinks.
This was the case last year when Main Street Mount Vernon hosted a beer garden at one of its First Fridays, Hess-McKinstry said. The organization had to buy beer from an outside vendor, and it could only be consumed within a fenced-off area between First-Knox National Bank and the Woodward Opera House. Establishing a DORA would allow each local restaurant or brewery to sell its own beer to patrons, who would then be able to walk freely within the DORA.
“This kind of keeps the money in our downtown area,” Hess-McKinstry said.
Patrons would have to finish their drink from one establishment before entering another, McNeal said.
McNeal stressed that a DORA would not only benefit the restaurants and bars that would be included in the district, but also the retail businesses.
“We don’t want to just make this for the restaurants,” he said. “It’s also for retail, and it’s a big thing for retail as well. Someone can go to Stein Brewing Company or go to Flapper’s and get a beverage and then walk down to Paragraphs, or walk down to Crickets, and carry their beverage inside if Crickets and Paragraphs allow that.”
Establishing and enforcing a DORA would require cooperation from multiple entities, McNeal said. Main Street Mount Vernon, the city, and the six restaurants/bars that could serve alcohol in the DORA would need to work together to purchase special cups and signage.
Each business in the DORA would have a sign indicating if it is participating. If it is a restaurant or bar, the sign would indicate whether or not it is selling beverages for outdoor consumption (which would be poured into DORA cups). If it is a retail business, the sign would indicate whether or not DORA beverages are welcome inside the shop. Signage would also need to be purchased to mark the boundaries of the DORA for any given event.
The Mount Vernon Police Department would be charged with enforcing DORA restrictions. Patrons who wander outside the established DORA with an open container would be subject to citation, McNeal said.
McNeal doesn’t envision enforcement being an issue, however, given how patrons have behaved at similarly structured local events in the past.
“There have been several events that I’ve been involved in, with First Fridays and beer gardens even last year, and I haven’t heard of really any problems that they’ve had with monitoring or enforcement on that end,” he said.
McNeal said educating the public and downtown business owners will be key if the DORA is approved. Main Street Mount Vernon would take the lead on this initiative, he said.
“We would need to educate the public and business owners on what this means and what these boundaries are, and how to legally stay within your rights within the DORA...” McNeal said. “We would have to get feedback from the public and downtown business owners as we go along.”
Many other Ohio cities have enjoyed the benefits of DORAs, McNeal said. He spoke with business leaders in mid-sized cities like Lebanon, Fairborn, and Middletown in southwest Ohio, and all said DORAs have impacted their communities positively.
Pete Bales, Fairborn's assistant city manager, told McNeal that "the intent is not to encourage drinking. The intent is to get more people downtown, get more people shopping. It's a tool in our economic development toolbox in an effort to continue downtown revitalization."
McNeal said Mount Vernon could "utilize this, in a way, for our economic toolbox as well."
While Tuesday’s 15-minute presentation to council was largely an introduction to the idea of establishing a DORA, councilman Mike Hillier did raise questions about how this area would be enforced. He expressed concerns about whether or not patrons would respect the DORA’s boundaries without physical fences or bouncers.
“The one reason for fenced-in areas – and I understand partly what you’re trying to do – but the one reason for a fenced-in area, generally if it wasn’t an officer standing at that opening, it was somebody from that establishment,” Hillier said. “That way, you have one entrance and one exit.”
McNeal reiterated that the boundaries of any DORA event would be clearly marked, and patrons would be informed of the penalties for crossing those boundaries with an open container.
Council president Bruce Hawkins said more questions would need to be answered before council considered any sort of legislation regarding the matter, but that Tuesday night’s discussion was “the beginning of a dialogue.”
McNeal plans to field questions from council members before their next meeting on June 8. Hawkins also suggested that MVPD Chief Robert Morgan provide input on what this would take from an enforcement standpoint – both in time and money.
Mayor Matt Starr noted that this initiative could be part of the city’s efforts to assist local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Starr said he is already in discussions with local business owners and fire safety officials on how to implement bistro-style outdoor seating downtown, so that restaurants can serve more customers while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
These discussions have not involved the sale of alcohol, Starr said, but the creation of a DORA would make that possible during certain events.
“We want to balance the public safety with the economic recovery,” Starr said, “and so we’re working with businesses to accommodate as much as we can right now.”