One week after halting a vote on whether to relax open-container laws in the city’s downtown area, the Tuscaloosa City Council on Tuesday took steps toward a compromise.
Last month, a council committee discussed a proposal that would allow certain alcohol retailers located within or immediately adjacent to the entertainment district’s boundary to serve to-go alcoholic beverages in a designated cup, an idea that business and tourism officials said would benefit visitors and residents alike.
“I think it helps us to continue to promote how progressive this city is,” said Don Staley, CEO of Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, the city’s tourism and visitor recruitment bureau, on Tuesday.
But some backlash from residents who live near downtown prompted council members to give the proposal a second look, with a scaled-back proposal the latest version on the table.
In addition to eliminating a portion of 21st Avenue to exclude Innisfree Irish Pub from the boundary, the latest version advanced by the City Council’s public projects committee would allow to-go drinks to be sold between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from noon to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, the only legally sanctioned hours during which booze can be sold on Sundays.
The full council won’t vote until next week.
But even that, for some, is a bit too much.
“If you wanted your children around drinking, you’d bring your kids inside a bar,” said historic district resident Lee Busby, who opposed the district. “We have plenty of establishments that are licensed to sell alcohol and that’s fine, let them knock themselves out.”
Council members heard both sides, and said they’d continue to listen and decide whether additional compromise is needed prior to next week’s vote.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to continue building something positive for downtown,” said District 4 Councilman Matt Calderone, who represents a portion of the downtown area along with the historic district residents. “The goal is not to have a Bourbon Street-like atmosphere.”
The “Downtown T-Town Entertainment District,” which began Sept. 15 and was in place for Fridays and Saturdays only, expired Jan. 27.
It is bordered, generally, by 28th Avenue to the west, the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk and Jack Warner Parkway to the north and 20th and 21st avenues to the east. The southern border stair-steps across several streets, from Eighth Street to Greensboro Avenue, then up to Seventh Street and across Lurleen Wallace Boulevard North to Stillman Boulevard.
Based on the success of this district, Tera Tubbs, executive director of the city’s Department of Infrastructure and Public Services urged the City Council two weeks ago to make the district a permanent one and active whenever it’s legal for bars and restaurants in the area to serve alcohol.
After news of a City Council committee recommending this proposal for a full vote, council members received a backlash from some community members. This prompted Councilman Kip Tyner to push for a reduction in its operational hours and Council President Cynthia Almond to propose that it be limited to just Fridays and Saturdays. The council continued deliberations Tuesday, and spent almost an hour hearing from those who both supported and opposed the district, as a whole or in part.
Kelly Fitts, a historic district resident and president of the Original City Association, a volunteer group that advocates on behalf of the downtown’s historic district residents, asked the City Council for a number of amendments to the proposal. These included halting the district’s operation at 10 p.m., making its western border end at 21st Avenue and eliminating the Riverwalk from its borders.
And while Fitts said she appreciated the council’s willingness to take a small step from this fall’s two-day, temporary district to one increased by just one day, she urged city leaders to monitor its usage to ensure it’s worth the effort.
“If we’re not generating business for (downtown businesses) or extra revenue for the city, then we don’t really need to be in this situation,” Fitts said.
Others, however, urged the City Council to proceed as originally planned.
“From the tourism perspective, we’d be for all seven days,” Staley said.
Al Spencer, vice president for economic development and public policy for the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, voiced his support, saying the more consistent and simple the district is, the more likely it is for visitors and residents alike to abide by its rules
“We would favor keeping it as simple as possible and consistent as possible,” Spencer said.
The full council is expected to vote on the measure at its meeting next week.
Reach Jason Morton at email@example.com or 205-722-0200.