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‘Go-cup zone’ details discussed, debated

 

NATCHEZ — A crowd of Natchez residents, business owners and tourism officials attended a public forum Friday to voice concerns and questions about the city’s recent efforts to establish a “go-cup zone” downtown for alcoholic beverages.

The Mississippi Legislature passed a bill earlier this year expanding last year’s law that allowed the designation of leisure and recreation districts in which open containers sold by certain businesses would be permitted off premises. The expanded bill includes Natchez and other cities.

The bill was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April and will go into effect July 1.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen must adopt an ordinance with rules and regulations as it relates to the go-cup law and create a map of the boundaries of the leisure and recreation district.

Natchez City Planner Riccardo Giani gave an overview of proposed plans for the leisure and recreation district.

Draft maps of the go-cup zone range from a district concentrated on the bluff area and Under-the-Hill to an expanded area to include Under-the-Hill, Roth Hill Road, Main and Franklin streets to Martin Luther King Jr. Street and down Canal Street to encompass the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Magnolia Bluffs Casino Hotel.

Giani said that special cups and/or stickers could be used to signify go-cup beverages that were purchased from participating businesses, and the city could charge a permitting fee for participating businesses to offset costs for the creation of a cup or sticker.

Different stickers could be used for different businesses, Giani said, so that businesses owners would know whether a patron purchased their go-cup beverage from their business or brought it from another business. It would be up to the business owners, Giani said, to police that.

Maps would also be posted by participating businesses, as well as trashcans place outside businesses and in highly trafficked areas.

Natchez Police Department Capt. Tom McGehee raised questions about whether the police department had the personnel to cover the go-cup zone area to enforce its boundaries.

After discussion, the general consensus was that taking a to-go cup outside the designated zone would not be a citable offense, officers would simply ask patrons to pour out beverages outside the zone and would not need extra patrol to enforce the ordinance.

FOR Natchez president Chesney Doyle made a presentation to the group about how the go-cup zone is an opportunity to lay plans for an arts and entertainment district and could be used to drive economic development. By concentrating the district in certain areas of downtown, Doyle said, it could drive business development there.

Doyle said the leisure and recreation district could always start small and be expanded to include other areas later.

Business owners expressed concerns about having to change their current serving cups, overregulating the rules to enforce the zone and the boundaries of the zone.

Twin Oaks owners Doug and Regina Charboneau voiced concerns that the proposed go-cup zone currently does not include the area where their bed-and-breakfast is located nor does it include Dunleith and The Castle Restaurant.

Doug Charboneau said Twin Oaks and Dunleith host weddings and other special events where guests enjoy beverages and often walk downtown to continue their celebrations. The guests, he said, would benefit from being able to take their beverages downtown and walk around.

Regina Charboneau said rather than starting conservatively with the district, it would be business friendly to include more businesses.

While the Charboneaus have King’s Tavern and Charboneau Rum Distillery that would be included in the go-cup zone, Regina said she would “feel sorry for the … businesses if they can’t participate.”

“I think you should be open and include more people,” she said.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said that many residents frequent the area of East Franklin Street that has Club Paradise, and the city should consider including that area out of fairness to business owners.

Natchez Convention Promotion Commissioner Katie McCabe said she was concerned that if the part of Canal Street that includes the street’s hotels and visitor center was not included, the city would negatively affect tourism.

That area, McCabe said, has 350 hotel rooms and is where many overnight tourists stay, many of whom would likely walk downtown to bars and restaurants.FOR Natchez is completing a downtown revitalization plan, and Doyle said while she agrees with most of the concerns of business owners, she wanted to ensure she pointed out the opportunity to use the go-cup zone as an opportunity for development.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said that since the city has not yet established an entertainment district, she said she thinks the biggest goal should making tourists happy.

“So if they want to walk in a bigger area, I think that’s fine,” she said.

City Attorney Bob Latham said he would be in favor of doing away with the entire idea of a go-cup zone if the city is going to overthink the regulations of it.

“Natchez has been doing this forever, the only thing that is causing the go-cup law is because the ABC came down hard has been harassing us for what we want to do,” Latham said.

Several businesses were cited on Aug. 3, 2016, the day of the city’s 300th birthday celebration reportedly for letting patrons leave their establishments with beverages.

Section 6-29 of the Natchez City Code allows for the temporary permits, which essentially suspend aspects of the open container law.

The city law, however, does not supersede state Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Regulations that govern the sale of alcohol through licensed venues, and liquor cannot leave the premises.

Giani said that because the work so far on the go-cup zone is preliminary, plans can change based on feedback.

The goal is to have the go-cup plans adopted at the June 13 board of aldermen meeting so that they can take effect on July 1 when the state law goes into effect.

Giani cautioned relaxing rules and regulations that could “hurt our application” that he said has to be approved by the Mississippi Department of Revenue.

“We have to be somewhat strict for the state to approve it,” he said. “We have to justify that the City of Natchez … can control it.”

DOR Spokespwoman Kathy Waterbury said, however, no applications are made to the department of revenue, and the department does not “approve” the city’s plans for the go-cup zone. Waterbury did not attend Friday’s meeting and spoke from her office in Jackson.

“The department of revenue doesn’t technically approve the leisure and recreation district,” she said. “Now, it’s not final until the city has provided all the required documents to the department of revenue.”

But essentially, Waterbury said, the city is responsible for creating an ordinance that defines a public safety strategy, the boundaries of the go-cup zone and an enforcement strategy.

“We are not approving it, and we are not enforcing it,” she said.

The department of revenue, Waterbury said, is looking at whether the city has met the legal requirements for establishing the go-cup zone and acts as a depository for those records.

The go-cup zone only applies to beverages containing liquor.

Patrons can already leave licensed businesses with beer or wine with less than 5-percent alcohol content in to-go cups, Waterbury said. Those drinks may be taken outside of a go-cup zone by patrons on foot.

Liquor cannot leave the premises unless it is in the designated go-cup zone, Waterbury said.

Regardless of what type of alcoholic beverage it is or if they are in a go-cup zone, patrons cannot leave one business with a beverage and take it to another business, Waterbury said.

“You can walk up and down the streets with it, but you cannot buy a beverage at Bar A and take it to Bar B,” she said.

As far as needing special cups or stickers for the go-cup zone, Waterbury said that is up to a municipality to decide, but there is no specific regulation that requires them.

“All those are the types of things the city needs to talk through,” she said.

Different cities have various ways they are implementing go-cup zones, Waterbury said, and the department of revenue is happy to advise municipalities on what would work for their city.

Waterbury said it a good idea to ensure boundaries of the go-cup zone are clearly marked so that no one is unwittingly involved in illegal activity because they did not know they had left the go-cup zone.

Municipalities crafting plans for go-cup zones, such as Natchez. are also consulting cities on the Gulf Coast that have already implemented their plans.

Waterbury reiterated that legal requirements exist that have to be met in terms of having plans in place, but it is up to the city to determine the plans and show it has done the work to make sure the plans will work.

“Our role is strictly advisory,” she said.