Fort Smith city directors will take a look at entertainment districts at the March 17 regular board of directors meeting. Directors pondered entertainment districts during a July 9 board study session but have not passed any ordinances.
The 2019 Arkansas General Assembly adopted Act 812, which makes it lawful for cities to designate “entertainment districts” where patrons can walk outside a bar or restaurant with an open container of alcohol for public consumption. The act intends to “promote hospitality and tourism by establishing areas of a city or town that highlight restaurant, entertainment, and hospitality options,” stated a July memo on the districts from Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman.
State laws and city ordinances that “prohibit a person from possessing an alcoholic beverage outside of the establishment from which it was purchased do not apply within such entertainment districts,” the memo said. The act specifically allows for the consumption of alcohol in public when it is consumed within the parameters of a designated entertainment district. Though the act allows for public consumption of alcohol outdoors in these districts, it does not “relax or supersede” laws or regulations dealing with alcohol including public intoxication or minor in possession of alcohol.
There can be permanently designated and temporary districts in a city, Dingman said. Both districts have to be mapped by city ordinance, but temporary districts would only be activated during special instances. The entertainment districts, according to the act, should be in a “contiguous area” in a part of the city “zoned or customarily used for commercial purposes” where there are restaurants, taprooms, taverns, entertainment establishments, hospitality establishments, music venues, theaters, art galleries, art studios, tourist destinations, distilleries, dance clubs, cinemas, or concert halls.
“We have discussed the creation of entertainment districts in Fort Smith before, and previous versions of a draft ordinance have been reviewed by business owners and stakeholders within the proposed districts. There has been some community feedback in opposition to establishing a permanent entertainment district, particularly downtown,” Dingman said during Tuesday’s (March 10) board study session.
A draft ordinance was presented to directors prior to the study session that establishes boundaries for two “Temporary Entertainment Districts.” The ordinance would set specific boundaries for the districts and states they can be activated through the city’s special event permit process, which specify the event, duration and specific hours the district would be active.
“The Special Event permit and entertainment district activation is ultimately approved by the City Administrator upon verification that all requirements have been met,” a memo from Dingman said.
The two temporary entertainment districts identified in the draft ordinance are downtown Fort Smith, which include various city parks and areas used for special events, and The Hub at Providence at Chaffee Crossing. The draft ordinance also sets rules for operating the temporary districts. Dingman said he had received positive feedback from those with downtown interests and stakeholders on the proposed.
“Keep in mind, we don’t just get one bite at the apple here. We can look at permanent districts still in the future. This is just a step,” Dingman said, noting the proposed ordinance and use of Temporary Entertainment District for special events “will be a good testing ground for whatever other options we might pursue in the future.”
City ordinance requires applications for a special event permit to be made a minimum of 45 days prior to the event. The time needed to make provisions for the event vary by event, said Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker.
Directors agreed the ordinance needs to be discussed before the Steel Horse Rally, which is set for May 1-2 in downtown Fort Smith.
Mountain Home was the first Arkansas city to establish an entertainment district in 2019. An open container zone is permitted between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and midnight daily within the boundaries of the district, which is centered on its downtown area. Other cities in the state, including Little Rock, Hot Springs, Texarkana and El Dorado, have created entertainment districts.