A parklet outside 21st Amendment and Los Bobos Taqueria / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer
Fayetteville’s outdoor drinking program is here to stay.
The City Council on Tuesday approved an ordinance that removes a sunset clause for the Outdoor Refreshment Area, which was originally set to expire in January, but was then extended to 2024. The ordinance also expanded the boundary of the program.
Through the program, participating businesses can sell alcoholic beverages in special cups provided by the city from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Customers must be given a branded wristband by the business before they can leave with their drinks and walk around outside. The program also allows businesses to set up barrier-free outdoor patios where people can drink.
Devin Howland, the city’s economic vitality director, said business owners have been requesting that the city remove the expiration date for the program, which includes more than 60 participating bars and restaurants. That’s 96% of all the businesses that serve alcohol within the program boundaries, Howland said.
Removal of the sunset provision, he said, will help encourage more significant investments in the program, particularly when it comes to sidewalk cafes and parklets.
“I’ve seen a lot of unique downtowns in my career that were really energized by outdoor activity,” said Howland. “And I want to see more of that here.”
Howland said removing the provision could also help city staff make the case to encourage buildings to be designed to embrace and orient towards the program.
A cyclist rides along the Razorback Greenway towards the Fay Jones Woods / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer
Bo Counts, owner of Pinpoint pinball bar on Block Avenue, said he’s been really pleased with the program in its first year, especially in how it has helped businesses deal with the impacts of the pandemic.
He mentioned how uncomfortable it was earlier in the meeting when a group of people who weren’t wearing masks entered the City Council chambers in protest of the city’s mask mandate.
“For people in the hospitality industry, that has been their every single day for the past year,” said Counts.
The Outdoor Refreshment Area, he said, has created somewhat of a buffer that bars and restaurants can use to separate masked customers from those who refuse to wear masks by allowing them to take their drinks elsewhere without losing their business.
Counts said the program is useful in other creative ways besides just letting people carry drinks around outside.
He said bars can make customers out of people who are waiting in long lines to enter restaurants and other businesses that are operating at lower capacities due to COVID-19 restrictions or staffing shortages. It’s a win-win situation, Counts said, because instead of seeing a long line and leaving, customers can grab a drink from one business to enjoy while waiting in line to enter another business.
Counts told the council he’s in full support of removing the expiration date.
“With the sunset provision there, it makes business owners like me wonder if the investment that I’m going to have to make – because no one is going to do it for me – is going to be worth it or not,” Counts said. “As a business owner and one of the people that makes the entertainment district something unique I like having the confidence that my city has got my back on my personal investment.”
The ordinance also expanded the boundary of the Outdoor Refreshment Area to include the Razorback Greenway and Fay Jones Woods area to the west, and the trail and tunnel under Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Specialized Real Estate Group’s South Yard development where restaurants, shops and apartments are planned.
The expansion won’t go into effect immediately since both areas are still under construction, including the Fay Jones Woods which is part of the cultural arts corridor project now known as The Ramble.
Howland said the extension will serve a key role once the corridor and South Yard developments are complete.
“It’s an incredibly important link because it’s the only path we have to access South Yard, but it’s bigger than that,” Howland said. “Adding in the trail is the absolute most safe possible route for patrons who’d walk the entirety of The Ramble from the Mill District.”
Council Member Teresa Turk said she likes the program, but isn’t sure the city has had enough time to properly evaluate whether it will work in Fayetteville.
“I would question whether we’re back to pre-pandemic levels,” Turk said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t think we’ve seen what (the program) will really be.”
Turk said with so many bars and restaurants already on board, she doesn’t think the impending expiration date is reducing or limiting participation from businesses.
“I don’t see the urgency of eliminating the sunset clause,” she said. “I see it as a little insurance for Fayetteville so if we do start to have problems, we can make modifications.”
Howland said the metrics of the program don’t show any signs that increased participation from customers will cause problems. He said there have been no citations issued for anyone violating the rules, and out of the over 500,000 drinks that have been sold through the program, there have only been about 55 littered cups found or reported so far.
He said the program has been a lifeline for businesses and has so far exceeded expectations.
“I think it’s telling that during one of the most challenging economic times of our lifetime we watched our downtown transform in ways that we never would’ve imagined,” Howland said. “It had a new energy and feel to it and this program was part of that.”
In the final decision, the council voted 7-1 to approve the measure, with Turk casting the only vote against.