Lansing to open booze districts just in time for summer

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Imagine picking up a craft beer from Lansing Brewing Co. and then meandering across the street — cup in hand — to grab a rye whiskey from Michigrain Distillery. How about a pina colada on the beach at Rotary Park or a sidewalk cocktail in REO Town and Old Town?

The Lansing City Council pressed those booze-soaked dreams closer to reality this week, voting 8-0 to create three designated “social districts” in which dozens of sidewalks, alleyways and other public spaces could open for to-go cocktails from Lansing’s local bars and restaurants. 

The plan, which has been in the works since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Michigan last year, is geared toward expanding capacity for entrepreneurs still stifled amid state restrictions, explained Council President Peter Spadafore. It could also drive more business to Lansing.

“Really, the impetus was the pandemic and allowing greater capacity to serve and help keep these businesses afloat. The added benefit is that this creates a gathering destination,” Spadafore said. “It also creates more opportunities for outdoor festivals in places like Old Town.”

Pending state approval and additional permits from the city, two or more licensed bars, distilleries, breweries or restaurants in each district will be able to sell booze poured in special cups that can then be consumed in shared outdoor common areas. Those mostly include sidewalks along Washington, Michigan and Cesar Chavez avenues as well as other adjacent side streets, the entirety of Rotary Park and a large swathe of the downtown Lansing River Trail.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission still needs to sign off on the proposed districts. And individual businesses within each district will still need city approval before the outdoor booze can start flowing. City officials expect they’ll be operational before the summer heat sets in.

A total of 33 licensed bars and restaurants will be eligible to apply to participate in the program. 

Cathleen Edgerly, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc., said the districts will allow local watering holes to split the cost of outdoor entertainment, attracting customers to the city in a more socially distant fashion. Similar concepts are in place in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

“I’ve watched social zones greatly enhance all of these areas,” said David Sell, who owns the Tin Can downtown. “They’re sort of the carrot at the end of the stick that we really need right now. Our industry has been ravaged by COVID-19, and this is really something that can help us limp through the rest of these mild weather seasons. This is the right thing for us. We need it.”

Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association and president of MichiGrain Distillery, said he expects the Liquor Control Commission to act quickly on the proposal. He also promised the Council that they “won’t become these big, gigantic problems.”

Council members have long emphasized that they have no intention of broadly lifting ordinances on open intoxicants, only allowing them to be consumed in districts with signage and marked boundaries. The proposed zones are also temporary, set to naturally expire on Dec. 31, 2022.

Additionally, the outdoor booze districts — pending state approval — will only be able to stay open until 10 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Tents, lighting and loud speakers with music will require additional approvals from the city. 

Dogs will be allowed within the districts but leash laws still apply. New trash and recycling cans will also be maintained by commercial organizations that represent each of the social districts.

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