Back in 2005, when Little Rock officials began talk of establishing an entertainment district downtown in which people could consume alcoholic beverages within a specified outdoor area, the question naturally came up as to whether Fayetteville might be interested in something similar.
Marilyn Heifner, who was then head of the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission, said the proposal sounded like a good deal.
What’s the point?
Fayetteville is slow-rolling adoption of an entertainment district ordinance, showing wisdom in the effort to get it right.
"It's made for Dickson Street," she said at the time.
As with many ideas, it takes time for enough people to get comfortable before they can become a reality. It wasn't until the spring of 2019 that the Arkansas General Assembly mustered the votes necessary to create the possibility of entertainment districts within certain Arkansas cities. Act 812 went into effect in July.
Despite the Heifner's common-sense evaluation that Dickson Street was perhaps the prime candidate for such a district, here in 2019 the Fayetteville mayor and City Council are slow-rolling creation of such a district. Who would have imagined that once the state law became reality, Mountain Home would become the first to implement a district and Little Rock, El Dorado and Texarkana have quickly followed suit?
Heavens to Betsy, even Sherwood -- a town of 31,000 between North Little Rock and Jacksonville -- is ahead of Fayetteville in adopting its own version of an entertainment district.
Texarkana adopted its district on Monday after weeks of discussion that ranged from placement of trash cans to the kinds of open containers that would be allowed. Maybe it's because the town is close to Texas, but officials also went through discussion about the mix of guns and alcohol in an entertainment district. People with concealed carry permits can carry them on public sidewalks. Most permits don't allow the gun-toters to have their weapon inside a bar.
All that's to say the term "entertainment district" doesn't mean the same thing in all these community. As Fayetteville and Bentonville think about creating districts, their discussions will look different than what's happened in other towns. The state law allows considerable leeway for towns to design their own districts and decide exactly how they'll function.
Mayor Lioneld Jordan has seemed comfortable taking a cautious approach even though his city is home to a street most anyone in Arkansas, like Heifner, would consider the natural site for a district allowing outdoor drinking. Dickson Street has for decades been a destination for good times for college students, city residents of all ages and visitors.
Maybe it's because of the presence of a large college-aged population that Jordan and others want to do their best to create the opportunity but in such a way that avoids opening the town up for trouble.
This week, the City Council again held off on adopting the district, voting to table it for a month as the city seeks a comfort level for how its entertainment district might enhance the Dickson Street experience and create opportunities elsewhere downtown for public consumption of alcohol, albeit on a case-by-case, temporary bases.
Surprisingly, the proposal so far has not been to establish a permanent drinking zone like other towns have. Mountain Home, Little Rock and Texarkana for example, set hours and days every week within a defined area during which outdoor consumption can happen. Fayetteville's proposal is designed to be event-driven.
Fayetteville's ordinance will create a fairly large downtown area defined as an entertainment district, but that only sets the boundaries in which people or organizations can seek approval for smaller, temporary districts -- say, a two-block area for one night to celebrate Fat Tuesday. Mayor Jordan has said he has no interest in creating an experience similar to the circus-like Beale Street in Memphis -- with a regular practice of opening the street to revelers.
Fayetteville doesn't have to get it perfect -- its authorizing ordinance can be modified later to address any unforeseen needs or issues -- but city leaders are wise to exercise great care.
On Tuesday, City Council member Matthew Petty questioned the proposal's assumption that city streets should be shut down within any permitted zone where outdoor drinking is authorized. When parking is already a big headache downtown, why shut down streets and the associated on-street parking, one might ask.
Petty also referred to the proposal as "a little timid" because it avoids permanent establishment of times, days and places where outdoor drinking can occur. Maybe, he said, it shouldn't be limited to an event-only approach.
For businesses and residents alike, it's vital that Fayetteville's entertainment district enhances the entertainment experience of Dickson Street and downtown, that it serves to promote success of the area's businesses and protects against the heart of Fayetteville becoming any more of a scene for drunkenness, concerns about public safety, drugs and driving while intoxicated than it already is.
An entertainment district will not necessarily exacerbate such issues, but if it's designed poorly, it could create some headaches and demand more city services, such as a bigger law enforcement presence, than the city really wants.
The City Council made the right call to postpone adoption of the district so the details can be further worked out and more of the people affected -- and it's really a community concern -- can weigh what's right and what's not about the Fayetteville plan.
Make no mistake: Outdoor drinking in some form is coming soon to a downtown/Dickson Street area near you. People who have concerns about that, though, should now be contacting the mayor and members of the City Council with their ideas and concerns.
Commentary on 09/20/2019