No consensus on plan for open containers

Published 9:50 am Thursday, July 20, 2017

Business owners had questions and comments, and were divided over whether they wanted people drinking alcohol from open containers in the city’s downtown district.

About 35 people gathered in the boardroom of the City Hall Annex to discuss a proposed ordinance that would allow people to have open containers in certain sections of the city. Open containers were not the only issue discussed at the meeting. Mayor George Flaggs Jr. also brought up the issue of using security guards to patrol downtown.

Vicksburg is one of 14 cities in the state allowed to have a “leisure and recreation district” in the city that allows people to walk out of a restaurant or bar carrying an open container in a designated part of the city as a way to attract more restaurants downtown.

Near the end of the meeting, Flaggs said he would prepare a proposed ordinance “and we can meet again and discuss it.”

The special district is a provision of the state’s alcohol beverage regulations that were passed during the 2016 session of the Legislature. The provision was amended during the past session of the Legislature to include Vicksburg.

“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” he told the restaurant owners attending the meeting. “But you are going to have to get a permit to participate, and the police and fire departments are going to have to sign off on it.”

He said the ordinance would restrict open containers to certain areas of downtown and would allow people to sit outside the restaurants and enjoy a beverage like wine of a mixed drink.

Several restaurant owners said they already allowed that under their state alcohol license, which allows people to drink outside a restaurant on a part of the restaurant property that is fenced off.

Winehouse owner Daryl Hollingsworth told Flaggs that state Alcohol Beverage Control regulations would only let him serve alcohol outside his restaurant if he had a monitor to observe the people and their drinks.

“Where does my liability start?” he asked. “Does it start when they leave my business? Who’s responsible?”

Flaggs said he would have to look at that. “I’m not certain,” he said.

Hollingsworth, who said he would not participate if an ordinance was passed, also asked whether police would be in the area to enforce the boundaries.

Klondyke owner DavidDay questioned the need for the ordinance, saying it could give some restaurants in town an unfair advantage over others. Several business people reminded Flaggs that downtown has a residential area and questioned the propriety of having open containers in an area where people lived. They said many of the cities with special leisure and recreation districts mentioned by Flaggs — like Clinton, Oxford and Jackson — have them in areas where there are no residences.

Another business owner suggested the city consider doing like Lafayette, La., which has a similar district, and shut down open containers at midnight. Hollingsworth, who has developed several residential/business properties downtown, said the reason he began developing residences downtown was to help create foot traffic for the retail businesses.

“To build up your downtown, you’ve got to have foot traffic; they go hand-in-hand,” he said. “It’s (downtown) fragile,” he said. “We’re moving along, but it’s fragile.”

Flaggs said the community “has to throw the box away” when it comes to improving and growing Vicksburg, and its ability to attract people to visit and live here.

South Ward Alderman Alex Monsour suggested people visit Ocean Springs, which he said had a leisure district that mixed restaurants and residential areas, “and it works well.”

“We’re not trying to make Vicksburg a ‘saloon town,’” he said. “But you can’t close your mind. Give us an opportunity to put something together.”

Flaggs said having security guards working downtown would free up police to patrol the neighborhoods and cracking down on burglaries and other offenses.

His comments were not the first time the mayor has proposed using security guards downtown. Flaggs came under fire in December after proposing to hire security guards for the city’s parking garages without informing former Police Chief Walter Armstrong.

His suggestion Wednesday night drew comments from business owners and residents about problems with homeless people, panhandlers, trash and litter and unruly crowds.

“The homeless people have their own open container law,” Hollingsworth said, adding panhandlers and homeless people can be seen downtown drinking.

Old Depot Museum director and curator Dave Benway said he has to pickup trash, and beer and whiskey bottles every Monday morning.

Kay Monsour, who lives downtown and with her husband Eddie own Monsour’s at the Biscuit Company, said people loitering and drinking at night clog the public parking area at Catfish Row.

“There’s nowhere for my customers to park, and they’re scared to park down there,” she said. “They park along the railroad track (on Levee Street). We call the police, but when they pass by, the people just get on top of their cars. It’s dangerous.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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