Entertainment district proposal sparks spirited debate

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

By Samantha Jones

Citizen.Editor.Eureka@gmail.com

More than 20 citizens addressed the Eureka Springs City Council at a town hall on a proposed permanent entertainment district Monday night at the Auditorium.

The council scheduled the town hall at its Dec. 9 meeting after months of debate over a proposed ordinance that would regulate public drinking in a permanent district. On Sept. 9, the council approved an ordinance establishing standards for both temporary and permanent districts, allowing temporary districts to exist on a case-by-case basis. There were two temporary districts in 2019 but the council deferred a proposed ordinance establishing a permanent district until the public could have more input.

Damon Henke was the first person to speak at the town hall, saying he was part of the Entertainment District Committee that met for several consecutive weeks in July 2019. Henke said the committee made a lot of headway and helped write the enabling ordinance for council approval. A permanent district would benefit the community, Henke said.

“It’s not about turning it into a party,” Henke said. “What we’re talking about … is the ability for people to go gallery to gallery and shop while they drink. It’s going to be a more laid-back atmosphere.”

The proposed ordinance would include a sunset clause, Henke said, so the council could call it off if things go awry.

“That’s the safety net for all of us,” Henke said. “If it doesn’t work, it’s just a matter of nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Robert Beauford express support for temporary districts but called a permanent district “hogwash.” Beauford said a drunk person recently broke a window at his shop. That’s indicative of what’s to come, Beauford said, if a permanent district is approved.

“It creates a liability,” Beauford said. “It creates destruction. I know no business owners that support this –– none.”

Jim Nelson agreed.

“I feel like there’s more potential downside risk than there is upside potential,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure it’s really going to be beneficial.”

Morgan Haney said she and her girlfriend own a business downtown. Like Beauford, Haney said, their store window was broken in 2019.

“It was done by a 7-year-old child. He busted right through that thing,” Haney said. “There are liabilities that happen regardless of alcohol. What we want to try to do is attract a demographic of people that are here to have a festive atmosphere.”

Haney continued, “It’s hard to do that if we’re being held back by ideas of a doomsday kind of thing. I think it’s important that it’s not all black and doom and horrible things.”

Kate Wicker said she understands the anxiety a permanent district could create. Still, Wicker said, there’s no harm in trying it out with a sunset clause.

“You’re saying there will be all these drunks falling down stairs. We don’t know what will happen,” Wicker said.

A permanent district could mean good things for business, Wicker said.

“I went to a freakin’ store one time where they served alcohol,” Wicker said, “and I ended up buying a $17,000 boat. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Let’s take it a day at a time and have an open mind and not expect the worst.”

Longtime Eureka Springs residents Jo Wilson said she’s concerned about the effect a permanent district would have on children.

“Alcohol can lead to alcoholism. It leads to other things,” Wilson said.

Steve Arnold, who runs a ghost tour business, said he has had problems with drunk people coming on his tours. When it comes to a permanent district, Arnold said, he falls somewhere in the middle.

“I’m a pro-freedom type of person in general,” Arnold said, “and I’m against it personally for my business.”

Pizzeria owner Robert Burgess said he and his wife wholeheartedly support a permanent district. They just wish it included their business, Burgess said.

“We have voiced our opinion that we’d like to be in the district,” Burgess said. “There’s a sunset clause … if it doesn’t work.”

Autumn Slane encouraged everyone to have an open mind.

“Who does it benefit? For me, it’s our guests,” Slane said. “I do think this could create an open environment … where families do come and have a glass of wine on the street.”

Linda McBride told everyone about her 17-year-old grandson, saying he looks like he could be 30.

“Every restaurant that takes part in this –– their liquor license is in jeopardy,” McBride said, “because of underage drinking. My grandson could pick a cup out of the trash and get some.”

Amanda Haley and Mary Howze both expressed support for a permanent district. They said they have attended events featuring an entertainment district in other cities and states.

“I get to walk around with my drink and participate in shopping and music and everything I’d want to see at an event,” Howze said. “It’s called an entertainment district because it entertains our guests.”

Alderwoman Mickey Schneider took the the mic as a resident and said she is concerned about potential mayhem in a permanent district.

“How many dead bodies is it going to take?” Schneider said, cut off by sounds of dissent from the crowd. “Just think about it.”

Jackie Wolven said the city should try something new before assuming it will go haywire.

“If you want to be progressive and … you want to attract tourists, you also need to be progressive,” Wolven said. “It is scary to try new things but it isn’t enough to stop something from being tried.”

Wolven then addressed the council.

“It is not OK for city council members to stand at the mic and say fearful things,” Wolven said. “That is not OK at all. For once in 2020 … we could give things a chance and not be ruled by fear.”

Mayor Butch Berry thanked everyone for coming to the town hall and said the council will be discussing the topic at its next regular meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, at the Auditorium.

“We look forward to hearing your public comments,” Berry said. “Thank y’all very much.”

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