Lakeshore communities welcome the benefits social districts offer businesses

Lakeshore communities have rolled out the welcome mat for social districts. Officials say they foster a welcome-back vibe to patrons and enable bars and restaurants to recover sooner from the economic strain the COVID-19 outbreak unleashed on them.

Businesses first need social district licenses from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) to sell alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on publicly owned property known as “social districts.” This is all in response to the bottom-line drubbing bars, breweries, and restaurants took amid the pandemic. Local governments, such as city councils, must approve the outdoor drinking spaces.
 
“Common areas” are specific public spots created by the municipality not tied to a specific business where people can quaff their legal drinks together. Common areas exist within social districts. The state of Michigan will allow social districts through December 2024.
 
Participating communities
 
Holland, Spring Lake, and Zeeland, (in Ottawa County); Muskegon (Muskegon County); and Saugatuck and Douglas (Allegan County) have got on board in approving their social districts. Here is the complete list of social districts local governments have approved along the lakeshore.

Holland is among the Lakeshore communities that have approved a social district.
 
A growing number of bars and eateries — including restaurants without liquor licenses  — are getting on board.
 
Holland earlier in the summer had four establishments approved to participate in the social district, including CityFlatsHotel, the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, Hops at 84 East, and Waverly Stone Gastropub. A number of additional businesses are waiting for their social district licenses to arrive from the MLCC.
 
Spring Lake gets on board

The Village of Spring Lake is the latest Lakeshore municipality to approve a social district inside its downtown area.
 
“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, bars and restaurants are just beginning to open up, and this will provide them with a larger footprint in which to serve the community,” says Village Manager Christine Burns. “It’s also a great way to practice social distancing when you’re waiting for your table at dinner.”
 
“What was the strong component was the flexibility it offered our restaurants and customers,” says Abby deRoo, Zeeland city marketing director. “Instead of having an extra glass of wine at dinner, they could purchase one from the restaurant and stroll downtown and it then frees up a table. I thought those were two really big ways to turn tables faster for restaurants when they were still limited in their occupancy.”
 
Grand Haven reviewing the idea
 
Grand Haven officials are mulling over the details. Its city council will review and perhaps make a final decision to have social districts at its Aug. 16 or Sept. 7 meeting, according to Jeremy Swiftney, executive director of the Grand Haven Main Street Downtown Development Authority.
 
Like many other restaurants and bars in the region, Grand Haven’s eateries, retail shops, and watering holes are keen on what social districts can do for them.

Proponants for social districts say a drink in hand makes the wait more bearable for restaurant patrons who are up to an hour away from being seated, and it benefits nearby shops.
 
“Recovery for restaurants is definitely not a one-year thing, it’s definitely not a two-year thing,” says Swiftney. “It’s going to be a long process. We’ve used a lot of data, a lot of information, from other communities: issues that they’ve seen, what worked, and what didn’t work. Do they allow anything in retail stores?”
 
Many businesses in favor
 
Swiftney adds he’s personally taken the pulse of downtown Grand Haven eateries, shops, and bars, and they beat strong in favor of social districts.
 
“A number of them are on board, pushing strong to try to get this approved,” he says. “The retail shopping sees it as more people looking at their stores. They’re looking at it as a positive rather than a negative.”
 
Even restaurants that don’t have a liquor license are in favor of social districts, says deRoo.
 
“It extends their stay, whether they’re a dinner guest or an attendee, it’s a welcoming piece for somebody to just come and visit a little longer,” says deRoo. “We found there was a lot of support from restaurants that don’t have liquor licenses because it allows them to be key players at dinner scenes. So, say, a family can come down, they can get dinner to go at any of the restaurants, grab a couple of beverages and sit at city-provided seating throughout the district.”

Breweries benefit

And with competition keen among breweries, social districts are another way for brewmasters to draw customers to their establishments, says Jeff Genova, general manager of Big Lake Brewing in Holland.
Lisa Mize, executive director for the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
“In the state of Michigan, there are over 380 breweries,” says Genova. “I think (social districts) are definitely a big part of the state and local economies. Right now, it’s beneficial. Over the weekends, I have 60 people each day get drinks. They don’t crowd the restaurant and they get to see the downtown businesses, so it helps twofold.”
 
“For our businesses to increase their sales revenue, we view that in a positive light. It’s something fun and different,” says Kara de Alvare, marketing coordinator for Downtown Holland.
 
Now that dining restrictions have been lifted, bars and restaurants find the competition is keen for boosting their much-needed workforce. Social districts help make waiting for a table a bit more tolerable.
 
“It gives guests a chance to have a drink and walk up and down the sidewalks while they wait for their table, so the restaurant doesn’t lose that guest if the wait is 40 minutes to an hour,” says Lisa Mize, executive director for the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’re, like, ‘We can wait that long. I’ll take my glass of wine and go in some of the shops.’ I think that’s a huge advantage.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.

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