Knoxville puts a lid on an open container for Market Square businesses

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Mobile, Alabama allows it. Decatur, in Georgia, does it too.

Knoxville, however, has put a lid for now on an open container proposal that would have allowed people to grab a beer while strolling through the Marketplace.

The proposal was relaunched last year with a petition by local businessman Scott West, followed by a survey initiated by the city among businesses and local residents.

Michele Hummel, director of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, said last month that stakeholders were divided over West’s proposal. Some believe that allowing open alcohol containers could change the character of Market Square for the worse.

This soft support, said mayor spokesperson Eric Vreeland, is enough to quell the idea.

But for Mobile and Decatur, allowing open containers hasn’t turned cities into party zones. According to local leaders in each city, thoughtful approaches to changing alcohol policies simply added extra coziness to businesses and added vibrancy to their respective downtown neighborhoods.

“This makes it easy for customers to move between locations,” Carol Hunter, director of communications for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, told Knox News. “And again, it’s just a much better experience for a customer who doesn’t have to meet someone at the door who says you can’t leave with that drink.”

Cups, cops and conversations

Beer was the only alcohol considered in the Knoxville proposal because it is the only type of alcohol controlled at the city level. To make the open container a reality, Knoxville City Council would need to change city ordinances.

But no formal proposal is on the table – just West’s petition. Although the petition has caught the attention of city officials, local leaders are not inclined to move without broader support from stakeholders in downtown Knoxville.

Mobile, which has roughly the same population as Knoxville, adopted its ordinance authorizing open containers alcohol in 2013 after the Alabama state legislature ruled that cities could create entertainment neighborhoods with open alcohol policies.

Hunter said the city had sought advice from three cities where open containers are allowed before implementing its own rules.

“The only thing the three cities I spoke with said is that you have to require the alcoholic beverage to be in a cup that they got from a licensee,” she said. declared. “In other words, they just can’t put a cooler in their trunk and pour a drink in their car and walk around with a Solo mug in the entertainment district.”

The point of allowing open containers is to boost business, she said, not to create “a big party scene.”

Additional seating was added to the center of the market square during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow restaurant patrons to have outdoor space for eating and drinking.  Although alcohol is allowed on the terraces and in this designated area, it is still forbidden to walk around with a beer in the market square.

Mobile supplies branded cups to businesses in the districts. Companies are also allowed to use cups with their own logos.

Cups should not exceed 16 ounces and should be paper or plastic.

Decatur also supplies branded mugs to companies, and started allowing open containers last year in response to COVID-19. The change was seen as a way to help businesses operating under capacity limits and to encourage residents to get out and maintain social distancing.

Decatur opted for a bright green mug after talking to the police about strategies to make alcoholic drinks easily recognizable. Conversations with the police also led to a rule requiring a bracelet for anyone drinking in public spaces.

Shirley Baylis, downtown program manager for Decatur, told Knox News the city also has green signs in place marking the start and end of neighborhoods where open containers are allowed.

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Like Knoxville, Decatur has a pedestrian-only plaza in its downtown area. This is one of the areas where alcohol is now allowed on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.

While it’s hard to quantify the program’s success at Decatur, Baylis said, it’s also hard not to notice the green cups in people’s hands as they walk through the city center.

The program has been extended until September 7. Discussions are underway at Decatur to make the open container a permanent order, Baylis said.

Help businesses more than anything

Mobile has not received much of a backlash since open containers were allowed in 2013. However, there were concerns ahead of its rollout.

Some residents were concerned that Mobile would turn into the next Bourbon Street, a point raised by stakeholders in Knoxville. It’s important to note that Mobile is known for its drinking culture, as the city was the first to host a Mardi Gras celebration in the United States in the early 1700s.

“The concern of how to prevent a drink from being handed over to a minor – there is no right answer to that,” Hunter said. “But what I’ll say is this: our experience has been that, for the most part, the Entertainment District Ordinance has done more to support our restaurants than any other ordinance I think.”

James Barber, chief of staff for Mobile, said it was important for the police department to reinvent the role of officers in entertainment districts. The pace of the march was once seen as an undesirable role, he said, and the city center had become a bit of a “police dumping ground”.

Now Mobile has made sure to bring some of its best agents in the area to liaise with businesses and customers, getting to know the owners and those who work out the door.

Before the ordinance, there were about 25 or 30 restaurants in the neighborhoods. Now, Hunter said, there are about 60.

“I think the worry that it was night after night after night – it didn’t happen for us,” she said. “Which doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of bars.… But you do reach a critical mass of places where people who want to go out at 1 am can go out.”

Downtown Mobile didn’t have a lot of outlets before the order, Hunter said, and it still does. The same could be said for Market Square, which is mostly made up of bars and restaurants.

The open container ordinance has not changed the types of businesses seeking to locate in Mobile’s entertainment districts, she said.

A public safety point of view

Barber was the Mobile Police Chief in the same year the open container was implemented, and he said the positive change it brought about was remarkable.

Scott West, pictured earlier this year behind a bar at Bernadette's Crystal Gardens, said he's not finished pushing for an open container in Market Square.  Weak support for his idea, said mayor spokesperson Eric Vreeland, is enough to stifle the idea.

“Since then, it has had an incredible impact on the look of downtown, the feel of downtown, the restoration and revitalization of downtown,” he told Knox News.

Barber said the open container improves safety in entertainment districts. The continuous flow of people makes it harder for “opportunistic criminals” to work, he said.

“I have no problem if we need a cop, if that’s what makes people safer,” West, the Market Square businessman, told Knox News. “This policeman won’t have much to do, but I totally agree.”

Mobile also has a curfew for minors in the entertainment district, keeping people under the age of 18 away from nightlife establishments. And when it comes to drunk driving issues, Barber’s thoughts are pretty straightforward.

“People can drink indoors as easily as they can drink outdoors,” he said. “It’s a decision you make.”

With Market Square business owners divided over whether or not to allow people to bring drinks outside, the proposal’s only chance now is for city council to go ahead on its own.

West said he was not done with the idea.

“I still intend to continue to sow seeds for a (future) open container in my role as the downtown cheerleader and the all-fun-filled flute player in Scruffy City,” West told Knox News. “I assumed this open container thing (kind of like Marketplace revitalization and Art in the Alley, etc., etc.) would be a long-term project.”


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