Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs are making plans for leisure and recreation districts now that the Legislature has passed a law allowing patrons to leave restaurants and bars with go-cups within district boundaries.
Provided Gov. Phil Bryant signs on as expected, Coast cities and about a dozen other Mississippi localities can adopt ordinances that establish leisure districts where people can stroll with go-cups. Currently, businesses licensed by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board cannot allow patrons to walk out with drinks.
The new law is "not really to increase alcohol sales," said David Nichols, Biloxi's chief administrative officer. "It's really to make it more convenient for people to move from one place to another, kind of like New Orleans."
Wondering where these districts might be? Here's what Coast leaders had to say:
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Two Biloxi districts?
Nichols said Biloxi is contemplating two leisure districts -- one for downtown and one for restaurant row, which runs along U.S. 90 between Rodenberg and Veterans avenues, where a beach boardwalk is planned.
He said several council members support the entertainment-district concept. "I know some of the restaurant and bar owners have been lobbying legislators, and now the council, on this."
Rob Stinson owns three of the restaurants on restaurant row. He said tourists are used to walking around with drinks in other areas, so it will be good for business if they can do the same here. And locals will feel like they're on vacation, he said, when they stroll the boardwalk with drinks.
Gulfport's on board
In the city Mayor Billy Hewes says is "open for business and geared for a good time," leaders have closely watched the bill's progress. They want to establish a downtown leisure district to show off the historic restoration that has revived business.
Go cups are especially important because the city is about to open Fishbone Alley, a pedestrian breezeway that runs between 26th and 27th avenues. Bars and restaurants along the alley are opening walls so patrons can stroll in and out.
Bob Taylor, owner of the Gulf Coast Restaurant Group, hopes the district includes the harbor. He is negotiating with the city for a new restaurant, tentatively called Harbor Point, at the harbor's south end.
"Having that law passed would be a huge step in bringing more folks down to the harbor, and it would also be a big help to other businesses on the Coast," said Taylor, whose Half Shell Oyster Houses in Gulfport and Biloxi could be in downtown entertainment districts.
His business partner, Kevin Fish, said the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has pointed out the restaurants can be fined under current law if patrons even step outside to smoke with drinks in hand.
'Walkable' Ocean Springs
"The Gulf Coast is a resort area," Mayor Connie Moran said. "We have events and parades up and down the Gulf Coast, so for the entire Coast, this is a positive development."
Ocean Springs is known not only for its speciality shops and art, but also for a vibrant nightlife in downtown restaurants and bars. Moran believes the Board of Aldermen will welcome a downtown leisure district because it's a burden for restaurant and bar owners to monitor customers so they don't walk out with drinks.
Business owners have a particularly difficult time, she said, when people pack Washington Avenue and Government Street for city festivals. She sees those two streets as the heart of a leisure district.
Bay's Second Saturday
Merchants in Old Town Bay St. Louis were dismayed when the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board crushed the tradition of merchants handing out free wine to customers as they browsed shops on Second Saturday.
The go-cup law still won't allow anyone to give away wine or alcoholic drinks without a permit, but some downtown merchants like the idea of a leisure district.
"It certainly would allow customers more freedom to bring their drinks," said Jane Alford, past president of the Old Town Merchants Association. "I'm fairly certain a majority of merchants would be in favor of such a thing."
Councilwoman Wendy McDonald, who represents the ward that includes Old Town's Main Street, said she envisions a downtown district one block deep and three to four blocks wide.
"If we have an opportunity to put something like that in place, we certainly should entertain the idea," McDonald said. "I think it makes sense."