On Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis, conventional daytime commerce gives way to a party atmosphere at night, fueled by public consumption of alcohol.
A bill passed this week by the state Senate would give Arkansas cities the chance to create their own versions of, at least, the Beale Street experience. It now heads to the House.
SB 1174, sponsored by Sen. Terry Smith of Hot Springs, says that cities in wet counties could create “designated entertainment districts” where public drinking (that is, drinking outside of licensed establishments) would be allowed, as long as they are “contiguous” commercial areas with bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues.
That general definition brings to mind several specific Arkansas locations, including Little Rock’s River Market District, Dickson Street in Fayetteville, downtown Eureka Springs, Central Avenue in Hot Springs, and possibly some areas of downtown Fort Smith, El Dorado and North Little Rock.
“It is up to the cities,” Smith emphasized. “If a city wants to do it, fine. If they don’t want to do it, fine. This just gives them the option.”
Each city would be able to restrict the public drinking to particular time periods, such as evenings, weekends, holidays, or even just one day a year.
The Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council opposes the legislation, but its executive director, Larry Page, seems resigned to its passage.
“The sky isn’t going to fall if this thing passes,” Page said. “I can see why some folks in the River Market would like to have this relaxation of the law. We just want to be heard about it.”
Page’s main contention is that public alcohol consumption does not fit with the state’s image.
“People say, ‘How are we ever going to get to be like Beale Street?’” Page said. “I say, why would we want to be? Arkansas has created a different kind of image. We bill ourselves as being family-friendly. This bill will counter that.”
Nevertheless, political and business leaders in most of the cities likely to take advantage of the new provision are supportive.
However, the city government in Little Rock — where the River Market already calls itself an “entertainment district” — is reluctant to offer a public endorsement of the legislation, even though the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce’s Special Business Development Task Force are supporting the bill.
“It is not a part of our legislative package,” said Scott Carter, Little Rock’s public relations manager. “Since it is not part of our package, the city board has not taken a position on that.”
Political consultant Bill Paschall thinks that Little Rock’s coyness on the subject is part of its legislative strategy, rather than an indication that the city does not want the new provision. In fact, Paschall has seen Odies Wilson, the city’s main lobbyist, trying to build support for the bill.
“Sometimes there is a negative reaction to anything that is perceived as a Little Rock local issue,” Paschall said. “They don’t want to get out front because that might hurt the bill’s chance of passing.”
Fayetteville mayor Dan Coody and Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, were not as reticent. Both men said their cities already grant permits for public drinking at downtown outdoor events, and they would welcome the new law as a way to reduce paperwork.
“We’re basically doing it already,”Arrison said, mentioning the recent St. Patrick’s Day parade as an example. “This is a common-sense bill that is long overdue. We don’t have a permanent area, but when we do have an event, it would be nice to be able to close it and do this.”
He added that, while Hot Springs does not have an entertainment district, the city might decide to designate a cluster of art galleries on Central Avenue, where the monthly Gallery Walk is held, as one.
“I would envision it as someone strolling from gallery to gallery with a glass of wine,” Arrison said.
Page, on the other hand, sees drinking in public as considerably less civilized.
“I don’t think I would take my children down there during those hours,” he says of the entertainment districts. “I am trying to teach them to abstain, and I don’t think it helps for them to see open drinking. So I won’t be going down there for dinner.”
He even challenges the basic premise of the legislation.
“Is it really unreasonable to ask someone to finish a drink in one establishment before they go on to the next one?”
The bill doesn’t specifically address a feature of Bourbon Street life — stands that sell drinks strictly to go. This bill says merely that it repeals a state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board rule that prohibits carrying an alcoholic drink out of an establishment with a permit for on-premise consumption.