What makes a good social district? 4 case studies in Macomb County

The development of social districts in Michigan’s cities was approved in July of 2020, as a way to mitigate the damage COVID-19 was wreaking on local businesses. Social districts are designated outdoor zones where participating businesses may sell alcohol and customers may consume the beverages off the premises within the approved common areas. 

The aim is to allow for more outdoor seating and cocktails-to-go to not only encourage social distancing among patrons, but to also revitalize businesses that took a hit during the pandemic.

With many cities making them permanent, some of these social districts are here to stay. So far four cities in Macomb County have established social districts: Center Line, Mount Clemens, New Baltimore, and St. Clair Shores. 

Center Line

Center Line’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) established its social district in April this year, to take effect only during specific events. The district debuted during the city’s annual weekend-long Independence Festival that took place in June, and Crusin’ 53.

“The city decided that this type of established district would encourage more visitors to enjoy the festivities in the downtown district and encourage more event planning for the district area such as arts and cultural events,” City Manager Dennis Champine says. 

Two businesses participated in the social district: Sandbaggers Sports Bar & Grill and Te Roma Grill and Beergarden. According to Champine, these are the only two businesses that serve alcohol, but as the city’s downtown area grows with more bars and breweries, the DDA will be looking for more participation. 

The first run of the social district taught the DDA a valuable lesson and they plan to continue hosting the social district for DDA events in the coming years. 
 
“The district was initially set up for the Cruisin’ 53 and Center Line Carnival events, both held in the DDA District, so the biggest challenge was communicating to the public of the social district participating bars,” Champine says. “Therefore, not many people took advantage of the opportunity to drink in the social district in the first year [...] so more marketing is needed for the next event.”

Brian Tingley, Mount Clemens’ community development director and executive director of the DDA, has lessons to share about creating a social district.

Mount Clemens

The social district of Mount Clemens was developed in the early summer of 2021 and was up and running by July. The year-round social district is in operation on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 10 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

“It's a fairly small district [...] the first summer, we had two [businesses] when we started out, and then this summer, we added a third, so it's relatively small in terms of the number of businesses that are participating, but the ones that are participating have found it to be beneficial to their operations,” says Brian Tingley, Mount Clemens’ community development director and executive director of the DDA.

The first two participating businesses are Cellar 104 and Abbibo. A third restaurant, Gumbo's, recently received city approval and is awaiting state approval to participate.   

“I think the biggest hurdle is really just trying to get our downtown businesses buying into the program,” Tingley says. “I think initially there was some concerns that it was going to kind of be a free for all — people were going to be drunk out in the streets — but we certainly haven't seen that at all. Our Macomb County sheriffs haven't reported any issues with people in relation to the social district.” 

Tingley says perhaps the DDA could have had more discussion with downtown businesses so more would participate initially. In addition to getting people involved, another obstacle they are working to overcome is purchasing more permanent signage to replace the removable signs from when the district was going to be temporary. 



New Baltimore

When New Baltimore’s social district — The Social Wave — was established in 2021, six businesses participated: Fin's Eatery & Spirits, Little Camille's By The Bay, On the Bay, Town Pump Bar, Washington Street Wine House, and Blind Owl. Since then, The Pink House Tea Room recently acquired its liquor license, raising the total to seven establishments.

The Social Wave runs year-long so people can enjoy it during the colder months, too, and it is suspended during major events that happen within the central business district.

“We were inspired by some of the larger cities such as Royal Oak and St. Clair Shores,” Jeff Byrum, treasurer of the New Baltimore DDA, says. 

In addition to making the district year-round, Byrum says the city got a lot of things right with their social district — overall it is a success. They kept the district contained so the serving establishments have enough space to be comfortable, as well as created social areas for patrons to enjoy their beverages. 

The next step for New Baltimore’s DDA is to concentrate on making more social areas for people and promote The Social Wave more. 

“I think that other cities who are not doing a social district need to act fast and get it established,” Byrum says. “It adds appeal to a city and helps people to explore what is offered. I would say our only regret so far was not getting going sooner.”  



St. Clair Shores

St. Clair Shores’ social district was approved by the city council in May of 2021 and had its first run on July 3, 2021. The social district is open on select Saturdays throughout the summer and early fall. Upcoming dates include August 27, September 10 and 24, and October 8 and 22 from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. 

“In my opinion, I believe the city got it right when they established dates for the social district,” Assistant City Manager Mike Greene says. “Instead of being an everyday year-round district, having the district take place one day every two weeks makes it more of a community event that can be organized and planned out.” 

There are currently four businesses participating businesses in the social district: Shores InnCopper Hop Brewing Co., Firehouse Pub, and Caché Cocktail & Wine Bar. As more venues’ permits are approved, this list will grow. 
 
In addition to sipping beverages in the common area, people of all ages can enjoy other activities during social district events, including live music, yard games, and food trucks. 
 
Greene’s advice to other cities looking to start their own social district: “Ensure the potential participating businesses are included in the planning process of the district. As they are main stakeholders in the district, their input on how it could operate is valuable.” 

Read more articles by Sarah Gudenau.