Cocktails-to-go: Innovative social district takes shape in downtown Port Huron

Port Huron is the first community in St. Clair County – and one of the first in Michigan – to embrace the state’s new permission for social districts, designated areas in city downtowns that allow for establishments to sell alcoholic drinks to go and for those drinks to be consumed outdoors throughout the district.

The social districts are an innovative response to social distancing and indoor capacity restrictions set in place to help control the spread of COVID-19.

As with many innovative projects, questions abound. So we asked Cynthia Cutright, director of Port Huron’s downtown development authority, all about the city’s new social district.

The Keel: The social district is viewed as a way to give a boost to downtown businesses hit hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can it achieve that?

Cynthia Cutright: Currently, indoor restaurant capacity is still capped at 50 percent. Not only that, but some people are still uncomfortable to be in crowds or dine indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This gives an excellent option to allow people a drink to go. Whether customers had planned to just grab a drink at the bar that they can now take outdoors, or they wanted a full meal so they order it as takeout along with drinks, it provides a perfect option for different scenarios. It also allows people to take in all that Downtown Port Huron has to offer in their walking through Downtown.

The Keel: Why is this development so exciting for downtown Port Huron? And not just now but in the long run, too.

Cynthia: We were one of the early adopters to this program, so it’s a great show of Port Huron actively taking steps to ensure health and viability in its downtown corridor and providing new experiences for residents and visitors. It’s distinctive – we are, as of this date, still the only City in St. Clair County to have a Social District, so it drums up excitement as something new and unique. Long run, we are hoping to see the Social District return year after year.

The Keel: Now that it's here, how do you see the social district taking shape? It's clearly more than just an area where people can drink outdoors.

Cynthia: As we continue to move through COVID-19 and look to return to a place where we can have larger social gatherings, I see the Social District playing a great deal into that. This is an excellent addition to our already standing downtown events and provides unique opportunities to create future events. Having a Social District creates an atmosphere where people stroll our downtown and maybe are able to see new stores they hadn’t previously or simply enjoy beautiful, historic Downtown Port Huron.

The Keel: To that end, what are some complementary features of the district either planned or in place?

Cynthia: For this year, we have nothing specifically planned around the Social District. We will spend this year onboarding restaurants to be part of this District and then make adjustments to the District as we see fit based on how it is received and handled. We will look into 2021 to create additional complementary features.

The Keel: What do you say to someone that might be critical of a social district?

Cynthia: That I understand the concerns! This is something new for all of us in Michigan – so truthfully, there is uncertainty at what this could look like. To that end, the law is written in a way that will keep Social District patrons, visitors to downtown, restaurants, bars, and retail merchants safe, healthy, and accountable. With all that said, we have seen this be successful in downtowns across the nation and I have no doubt that our model is what is best for Downtown Port Huron.

The Keel: Conversely, why should people come and visit the district?

Cynthia: Partaking in the District is a fun way to still support local while not being confined to indoor spaces. It also is established if one just wants to enjoy the outdoor air while it’s still warm enough to do so! We have taken the time to activate some spaces downtown to create common areas that people can go to with their Social District drinks. So whether you want to play bag toss at the McMorran Beach, enjoy views of the river at the Military Street Pocket Park, or stroll downtown – the Port Huron Social District allows you to take in what we have to offer here in Downtown Port Huron with a beverage in hand.

The Port Huron Social District runs May 1 to Oct. 31 of each year. The social district is open until midnight each night, meaning a licensed business cannot sell a Social District drink past midnight. Only alcoholic drinks purchased at participating businesses can be consumed within the district.

Currently, three businesses have been approved to participate within the District from the MLCC: CityFlats, Rave Café, and McMorran Place. Additional businesses that are looking to be part of the District and have received approval from City Council to apply include: Casey’s, Wings, Etc., Martina’s, The Vintage, Alley Room, Vintage Tavern, and Lynch’s Irish Tavern.

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