By Jessica Mathews /

The City of Howell is on track to become the first local community to establish a social district that allows for alcohol consumption within designated boundaries downtown.

Under a new law through the state, a municipality can set up a social district where alcohol can be sold by licensed establishments to customers who can then consume the beverages within the commons area of the district. Eligible businesses with liquor licenses can pay a fee and apply for a special license through the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. Businesses must also purchase cups with their logos and that of the social district or go with plain cups and purchase stickers.

At Monday night’s virtual meeting, Council unanimously approved a resolution designating the district and commons area, along with a management plan. A map has been drafted to establish the district boundary and commons area boundary, which includes portions of Grand River and Michigan Avenue. A separate common boundary was also created to be used specifically during special events.

The district could operate year-round and the established schedules and boundaries were said to be easily identifiable for police enforcement. Around six businesses are said to be on board currently, but it’s expected some might be taking a wait-and-see approach and could participate later. The City hopes the creation of such a district will help boost sales for participating restaurants, increase downtown foot traffic and allow for flexible means for social distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

City Manager Erv Suida told Council the police chief has looked at this extensively and a lot of modifications have already been made based on his recommendations. The chief was said to have reached out to chiefs in several other communities that have established districts and are very comfortable with what Howell has developed. Suida said the chief’s only concern, and the concern raised by other chiefs, is that the City does a very good educational campaign to make sure people are aware of the boundaries, what it means, and understand the difference between the boundaries and commons areas.

DDA Director Kate Litwin commented that the commons area is where people can consume beverages and the social district boundary extends out a little further where people can carry beverages but should not be consuming them – which was said to be mostly parking lots. For special events, Litwin said they wanted to include some provisions for additional boundary lines that would only be used during special events. The state requires a boundary that goes beyond the commons, which Litwin said was likely for enforcement and to allow some flexibility.

Some questions were raised about how everything will be evaluated. Litwin said the legislation allows social districts through 2024 and then sunsets so it depends on what the state decides to do. As far as local evaluation and re-evaluation, she said if Council can revoke the ordinance at any time and take a step back if it decides it doesn’t want to keep the district going.

It was stated that a robust communication plan will be put together so everyone understands how it works and what’s permitted. Litwin said they’ll be looking at different options for signage and a marketing campaign, which would likely come out of the DDA budget as part of the COVID-19 recovery line item.

Following Council approval, the map and plans will be submitted to the state. Once approved, sidewalk signage will be finalized to identify the boundaries and participating restaurants and bars. If all goes as planned, the City hopes to have the social district in place by Balloonfest, the last weekend in June.

The map is attached and more information is available in the Council packet. That link is provided.

Photo Credit: Richard Lim Photography.