Negaunee celebrates opening of social district, becomes second U.P. community to do so

What’s happening: Downtown Negaunee celebrated the opening of its social district earlier this month, becoming just the second Upper Peninsula community to take advantage of the still relatively new law that permits Michigan municipalities to establish designated areas that allow customers to purchase alcoholic drinks to-go and enjoy them outdoors and on public streets. Manistique instituted its own social district this past May.

Background: Governor Whitmer signed the social district bill into law on July 1, 2020, in an effort to drum up business for Michigan bars and restaurants hit hard by the economic effects experienced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the COVID-era shutdowns and bans on indoor dining have since passed, the law remains. It’s proven quite popular, with more than 90 communities throughout Michigan having since approved their own social districts.

What it is: Municipalities set up their own social district footprints, including city sidewalks and parks, where customers can purchase alcohol from a participating bar or restaurant and take it to-go — but only to be enjoyed within the designated areas. Outside beverages are not permitted. In Negaunee, the social district extends along Iron Street, the town’s main drag, and includes several nearby streets and city parks. There are currently six bars and restaurants participating in the district.

Why it’s important: “The social district provides new opportunities for more people to come downtown and for us to drive more traffic downtown. That's what we're looking for, for people to come to our businesses,” says Nate Heffron, city manager for Negaunee. “We recognize that the businesses in downtown Negaunee cannot survive solely on the business of people who live in the community. We need people visiting from outside our community, including those from the greater U.P. and Marquette and the Marquette area, but also visitors from abroad that come visit us as tourists during the tourist times of year.”

Bigger picture: The social district isn’t the only tool in Negaunee’s tool box ready to drive more people downtown. The city recently received an $855,000 Revitalization and Placemaking (RAP) downtown enhancement grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation for a $2.1 million streetscape and placemaking project that aims to reinforce the vibrancy of downtown Negaunee. Critical infrastructure projects and beautification efforts, as well as construction of a new park, are planned. Heffron sees the social district and streetscape project, construction of which begins next year, as dovetailing together to create a more attractive place to do business.