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Discussions begin for ‘entertainment district’ in Magnolia to allow open containers

by J.D. Bailey on 07/26/22

Could downtown Magnolia soon become an entertainment district? If local government discussions are any indicator, an answer from the Magnolia City Council may be here in the coming months.

Appearing before the city board this week, Magnolia Economic Development Director Ellie Baker gave the first glimpse of how the historic square could benefit from such a designation. If allowed, downtown patrons and restaurant-goers of legal age would be allowed to purchase and carry alcoholic beverages within a specified boundary, without violating any public container laws.

“In short, it allows a permitted restaurant to allow a patron to take their alcoholic drink -- in a certain sized cup that is branded a certain way -- out (of the establishment) and potentially to another location in the entertainment district,” said Baker this week as she spoke to the City Council. “… A lot of towns in Arkansas now have this, and they haven’t really had any trouble.”

The Arkansas State Legislature passed a law in 2019 that allowed towns to establish "entertainment districts" to help boost local tourism and businesses. Since then, entertainment districts have popped up all over the state. The sites range from urban and tourist centers such as Fayetteville, Little Rock, and Hot Springs to smaller towns such as Van Buren and even neighboring El Dorado.

“This is really a way for people to come to downtown Magnolia and enjoy whatever is happening,” Baker added. “That could include our Farmers Market or our Second Thursday Market, and people would be able to take their beverages with them.”

The move could also potentially add more business to downtown, according to the city official.

“I have spoken with Mountain Home, and they said two new restaurants have opened after adding and entertainment district,” she added.

Although open carrying of adult beverages within the district would be allowed, items such as bottles, cans, and outside drinks that weren’t purchased from specified vendors would not be permitted. There would also likely be restrictions on where legally-aged patrons could buy drinks.

“It would be very strict,” said Baker. “… This is not something that encourages drinking by any means. It just kind of creates a more inviting atmosphere.”

Parameters can also be placed on entertainment districts to help discourage minors from purchasing and possessing alcohol and limit drinking hours. In many districts, drinks must be in specially-marked cups and sold only through certain vendors. Time constraints can also be placed on entertainment districts, allowing alcohol to be served only during certain times and certain days.

According to Baker, her plans call for similar rules, but the final call is up to the city's legislative board.

"This Council can put any kinds of stipulations on (the district) that it wants," she said.

Temporary permits, according to Baker, could also be allowed for certain instances -- such as special events on the square. The Magnolia Blossom Festival currently allows for a similar permit, but the area that sells alcohol must be barricaded from the rest of the event. By designating downtown Magnolia as an entertainment district, such restrictions could be lifted.

“This would allow everyone just to walk within the district,” she added.

Since the district is just the planning stages and would still have to be approved by the City Council, Baker said Monday that she had no specific boundaries yet for map, but noted it would be similar to the main Blossom Festival area. She did note, though, that any church parking lots or properties should be off limits.

“I think that’s just not appropriate,” she noted.

She also added that Magnolia law enforcement leadership was on board with such a district.

“I have talked to the police chief … and it does have police chief’s stamp of approval on it,” Baker said. “There’s absolutely no way I would ever want to present this without his approval.”

Police Chief Todd Dew, according to Baker, has also suggested certain safety precautions for the district that could include additional video cameras for the area, as well as added police presence -- at least during the initial phases of the district, and additional signage for the area and its boundaries.

“It’s very doable what he’s asking,” she added. “I do appreciate our police chief understanding what value this could bring.”

Signage could also be placed on shops or venues that did not wish to allow patrons with drinks into enter their establishments, according to Baker.

Although this week’s address to the City Council was only informative in nature, Magnolia government leaders were encouraged research the success of entertainment districts in other towns and arm themselves with knowledge of all potential rules and procedures for such a district.

“It’s very easy to assume what the rules are, versus what they actually are, and what they can do for our downtown,” Baker added.

No one on the City Council this week specifically spoke out against the idea of an entertainment district in Magnolia, but Alderman Steve Nipper gave his opinion in favor of the matter.

"I fully support it," he said. "I would hope that places like The Loft and Magnolia Arts could be included as well."

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