Danville's River District has become a focal point for entertainment and dining. The city is pursuing a special license that would allow it to create a permanent Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, or DORA, that would permit visitors to walk through the district with beers or cocktails. Courtesy of the River District Association.

Danville is on the cusp of becoming the first locality in Virginia to create a year-round zone where visitors can carry beer and cocktails on the sidewalks and into stores.

The Danville City Council on Tuesday approved an ordinance that will allow the city to create a so-called Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, or DORA, in its River District. Virginia ABC must now approve a license, a process that could take 60 to 90 days, according to Lee Vogler, the council member who has spearheaded the city’s effort.

“I was worried that maybe somebody had gotten ahead of us, but no, we’re still going to be the first, so I’m happy about that,” Vogler said Wednesday morning.

A state law that took effect last July created the DORA designation; it was part of a larger pandemic-era move to tweak Virginia’s alcohol laws that also opened the door to to-go cocktails and delivery of alcohol to homes.

Before DORA licenses were available, an organization that wanted to serve alcohol at an outdoor event would have to bring in a beer truck or other vendor, and drinking would be limited to fenced-off areas like beer gardens.

By contrast, a DORA can span multiple blocks, and patrons can buy drinks from ABC-licensed restaurants within the area and carry them throughout the zone.

And, for localities like Danville that take an extra step, a DORA can exist independent of any particular event. 

While the law allows DORA licensees to hold up to 16 events a year, with each event lasting no more than three days, it provides an option for localities that want greater freedom: A town or city council or county board of supervisors can adopt an ordinance requesting an increase in frequency and duration of its DORA.

According to an ABC spokesperson, DORA licenses have already been issued in 15 Virginia localities, but none of those involved such an ordinance. (The current DORA licensees are in Alexandria, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Hampton, Harrisonburg, Manassas, Norfolk, Onancock, Richmond, Roanoke, Scottsville, Suffolk, Tazewell, Winchester and Wytheville.)

By and large, Vogler said, there’s been a lot of excitement about the idea around Danville. He’s heard some questions about how a DORA would be implemented, he said, but city staff tried to address any concerns in the ordinance. 

Outdoor alcohol consumption within the DORA would have to stop at midnight. (It could resume at 8 a.m.) 

The ordinance prohibits alcohol consumption in Danville’s city hall, the library, schools, city buses, the courthouse, the Riverwalk Trail and a handful of other properties. The city market and city parks also would be off-limits, unless a separate ABC license had been issued for an event there. The ordinance also prohibits alcohol consumption on the property of any place of worship.

Private businesses within the DORA wouldn’t have to allow customers to bring drinks in – the owner of a clothing store who’s worried about red wine spills, for instance, could post signs prohibiting alcohol. Nor could patrons bring beverages they bought at one restaurant into another eatery.

The boundary of the DORA would be marked with permanent signage. Public intoxication would still be illegal, and the police department would “regularly patrol” the DORA and coordinate with the license holder about security, the ordinance says. (The city itself won’t be applying for the ABC license; that will fall to the nonprofit Danville Development Council.)

Across Virginia, some groups that have sought the new licenses have said that they see DORAs as a way to support local restaurants during the pandemic. Others have touted it as a tourism or economic development tool.

Last fall, when Danville was already well into discussions about establishing a DORA, Vogler said that he saw it as a logical continuation of the city’s efforts to reinvent itself, and as a response to residents’ demand for more entertainment options.

By law, the city can set up three DORAs. The River District, a walkable, well-defined area that is home to numerous ABC-licensed restaurants, was a logical first step, Vogler said. The city’s Schoolfield area, where a Caesars casino will open next year, is another possibility. 

But there’s no rush, Vogler said.

“We kind of want to wait to see what happens with this one, and what we learn from this, and any adjustments we need to make,” he said. “We do plan at some point to utilize the other two, but we don’t want to just rush into them. We kind of want to see where the growth and development happen over the next couple of years.”

Map of Danville’s designated outside drinking area. Courtesy of Danville.
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Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.