When Lee Vogler stands in the middle of Danville’s River District and looks around, he sees a growing entertainment and cultural hub: restaurants, a brewery, apartments, music venues.
When he imagines the River District a year from now, he sees an addition to that scene: happy visitors wandering the sidewalks with beers or cocktails in their hands.
“More and more, folks are ready to see Danville kind of step into this next phase of its history, becoming a tourist destination, a place where folks can have a nice night out, and have entertainment,” said Vogler, a member of the Danville City Council. “We just feel that this is another step in that direction.”
Vogler is helping to spearhead the city’s effort to obtain a new ABC license that would allow it to create permanent open-air zones where alcoholic beverages can be consumed on the street, and even taken into stores.
Danville, Abingdon and Charlottesville are among the first localities in Virginia to consider a DORA license – that stands for Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area – since the law creating it took effect July 1. About a dozen other localities have received licenses that allow similar zones to be created for specific events.
DORAs are different from festival beer gardens, where trucks usually provide the brews and drinkers must stay within a fenced area. A DORA, by contrast, could span multiple blocks – even a whole downtown – and patrons would buy drinks from ABC-licensed restaurants in the zone and then carry them as they browse nearby merchants.
Vogler sees it as a logical continuation of Danville’s efforts to reinvigorate itself, a process that has been underway for years with the renovation of vacant downtown buildings into residential and commercial spaces but last year got a very public jolt when more than two-thirds of Danville voters voted to allow a casino to be built in the city. Caesars Virginia is slated to open in 2023 with 500 rooms, plus tens of thousands of square feet of meeting and convention space.
“The message that we continue to receive from our citizens in general is ‘We want more’ – more entertainment, more music, more nightlife,” Vogler said. “And so we are trying to meet that demand.”
For its first DORA, the city is targeting the River District, which Vogler describes as a “gathering hub of activity.” It’s a walkable area that’s home to a high concentration of businesses that could benefit from added visitors, he said.
“I view this as something that ties in with entertainment and culture, this communal kind of atmosphere,” he said. “Our River District, that’s what that is for us … so it seemed like the logical place for the first one.”
A handful of other states have created similar licensing options.
Ohio, for instance, which approved its first DORA in 2015, now has 81 of the zones – including 32 created just last year – according to a July story in the Dayton Daily News.
Michigan approved the creation of so-called “social districts” last year; as of this summer, there were 40 across the state, according to a story in MLive, a statewide news site.
While tourist meccas like Bourbon Street or the Las Vegas Strip get most of the publicity surrounding public drinking, local DORA backers will be quick to tell you that they don’t want to be like those places. Even if they did have neon aspirations, they would be unlikely to ever achieve that kind of atmosphere.
“I don’t think the results would be some sort of unmanageable chaos,” said Doug Plachcinski, Danville’s director of planning. “We’re just not that rowdy. Even our existing live music – everything closes up at 10 o’clock.”
Doug Beatty, the driving force behind a petition seeking a DORA that would encompass about six blocks of Abingdon’s Main Street, said he’s heard the concerns in his town but thinks it’s “much ado about nothing.”
“Abingdon will never be downtown New Orleans or the French Quarter. It’ll never be Savannah. We’re just not that,” said Beatty, who owns Bonfire Smokehouse in Abingdon’s historic downtown.
Beatty said he’s learned from his decades in the restaurant business, both in Abingdon and in Asheville, North Carolina, that putting “feet on the street” is a key to a thriving downtown, and he believes that a DORA would help create the right kind of atmosphere to attract more people to Abingdon’s historic district.
Tonya Triplett, the Abingdon’s director of economic development and tourism, said the grassroots effort has prompted a lot of discussion in town, and some fears about noise and drunkenness.
“It’s an education process,” she said. “When I was first hearing about it, I thought, My goodness, this is going to be like Bourbon Street. And that definitely is not something that we are interested in.”
But the town has been looking at how other states have implemented DORAs, she said, and they’ve seen reports from other towns that haven’t seem to have had any problems.
One idea they’ve been talking about would be to start small – to create the first DORA just in the farmers market area, and then expand it later if it’s successful.
Town officials are considering logistical questions as well: How does the sanitation department deal with the increased trash that would be produced, since each to-go beverage must be in a disposable plastic cup? What if there are merchants who don’t want to participate – do they need special signage?
“This council is very conscious about making sure we balance the tourism experience with the citizens who live here,” Triplett said.
“We want to just make sure that we’re crossing all of our t’s and dotting all of our i’s, and that we’ve heard all of the concerns.”
While it might be easier to obtain the more limited version of a license – the kind that allows open-air alcohol zones during certain events – Beatty said he’s committed to pushing for a permanent DORA.
“We don’t want to have certain days of the week or really weird hours on certain days – none of that,” he said. “We need to make this simple and consistent and easy to follow.”
No one in Virginia has received a full DORA license yet, but more than a dozen localities or nonprofits have obtained a more limited version that’s similar to the old local special events license and allows for the creation of a time-limited refreshment area for a festival or other event.
That’s the route Downtown Roanoke Inc. took. The nonprofit successfully applied for a DORA license that allows it to create outdoor beverage zones for up to 16 events over the course of the year. The impetus was last month’s GO Fest, which moved downtown for the first time in its history.
The outdoors-focused festival, which ran for three days, in years past had always been held at River’s Edge Park, with beer gardens served by trucks. But when organizers decided to move it downtown, it made sense to work with nearby restaurants instead of bringing in beer trucks to compete with them, said Jaime Clark, vice president of marketing and communications for DRI.
The desire to give a boost to local restaurants, which have been pummelled by the pandemic, has been a driving factor for at least some of the DORA licensees, including Tazewell Today, a nonprofit that handles event planning for the town of Tazewell.
In the past, Tazewell Today would get a banquet license and bring in a beer truck for its First Fridays series, said Emily Combs Davis, a member of the Tazewell Town Council who’s also on the board of Tazewell Today.
“That was nice, but we now have restaurants on Main Street that we want to support,” Davis said. “We’re bringing all of these people to Main Street, but if we have a beer truck, we are competing with the restaurants for the business, and that’s not really what we want to do. We want to encourage the economic activity to the restaurants.”
Julia Boas, director of marketing for the Roanoke Regional Partnership and an organizer of GO Fest, said she could see the appeal of creating a permanent DORA, especially if Roanoke were to close off the city market area to traffic – an idea that has periodically surfaced over the years.
She wondered, though, how it would work logistically.
For GO Fest, extra security personnel were hired to patrol the edges of the refreshment area to make sure no one came into or left the zone with alcohol. How would that work with a permanent DORA? she wondered.
“You’d just have to trust people, I guess,” she said. “There could be a serious learning curve of people taking their alcohol wherever.”
She paused, then said: “Then again, people could, in theory, take beers out in the streets whenever they wanted, but they don’t do it. People are like, ‘Everybody’s going to go insane and lose their minds because you let them take a beer out.’ People could always walk around with alcohol and you would never know. They don’t do it. It’s not the societal norm, so we don’t do it.”
In Danville, city leaders haven’t publicized the DORA push yet, but Vogler and Plachcinski both said the feedback they’ve received has been positive.
Rick Barker, who owns two restaurants in the River District, Mucho Taqueria and The Garage, said he hadn’t heard of the DORA plans but liked the idea.
“Generally, we would be supportive of that, because it promotes a relaxed, casual, somewhat festival atmosphere,” Barker said. “It’s entertainment-friendly, and for that reason we would be supportive.”
Pre-COVID, Mucho would host occasional block parties. The city would close the street, and patrons could wander with their drinks within the limited area.
“Customers love it,” he said. “It’s like one block out of Bourbon.”
Diana Schwartz, executive director of the River District Association, said she believes that a DORA would be one more amenity that would encourage people to visit Danville’s downtown, and she thinks that it fits in with the city’s other tourism and economic development initiatives, like the casino.
“You have some very forward thinking folks here in Danville,” she said. “They understand there’s risk involved whenever you’re trying to do something to move your community forward, but thankfully they’re very very smart, and it’s calculated risk, and it’s educated risk, and so far it has certainly paid off.”
Plachcinski’s office is working through the logistics of a DORA plan, including what the boundaries should be. A public safety plan will have to be developed, and the city will need to figure out what entity should hold the license. Eventually, the city council will have to vote on the proposal.
Danville is already eyeing two other potential DORA sites: North Main commercial area, across the river from downtown, and the area around the casino project, called Schoolfield.
“Initially the first effort is to support our existing and growing businesses,” Plachcinski said. “After that, we hope to use the tool more as kind of direct economic incentive, to stimulate actual growth and business creation.”