Earlier this week, the OHDS board of trustees presented a potential solution to the liquor stand-off that has made the Oregon District infamous, colloquially known as the Rule of 17. The Rule of 17 revolves around an informal resolution between the city of Dayton and the OHDS that caps the number or liquor licenses allowed in the Oregon District at 17. This cap has been controversial for years and has twice been ignored by the Ohio Liquor Commission, once when the Fifth Street Wine & Deli was granted its license and again last year when Inn Port D’Vino was granted a license. That second license was then revoked on appeal but no one, including the city and the owners of Inn Port D’Vino, has any idea why it was revoked. In fact, the city went so far as to appealed the Liquor Commission’s decision expecting that Inn Port D’Vino would get their license. That decision is being appealed right now.
There are a handful of arguments presented by supporters of the Rule of 17, most notably that (1) the voting precinct lines were redrawn several years ago so that if things ever got out of hand, the neighborhood could not vote the bars on Fifth Street dry and (2) encroachment – bars are bleeding into the residential portion of the district and, while no one is arguing that they have done so already, they may disrupt quality of life. What is important to understand about these arguments is that they are mostly made by people who have lived in the District since the bad old days of the ‘70s and ‘80s when Fred and Sylvia’s and the Southern Bell where in the heart of the neighborhood and Fifth Street and Wayne Avenue were called “Filth and Wine.” As a recovering alcoholic who used to spend a lot of time down at Filth and Wine explained, most of the bars were “the kind of place you went into with a gun in both pockets.” It’s hard to imagine Coco’s, Thai 9, Boulevard Haus, Sidebar, or Blind Bob’s tolerating clientele like that – and these are the new businesses. This is the direction that the Oregon District is headed. Just this week, Press, a high-end coffee shop, opened on Wayne Avenue in a long vacant storefront. Lucky’s Taproom, an earth-friendly microbrew bar and diner, is scheduled to open in early February in the old John Henry’s location, which has been empty for two and a half years. Cities in general have changed since the bad old days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. New York is no longer burning. Oakland is chic. People are moving back into cities in droves. This isn’t news. It’s a cultural shift that has been going on for twenty years. But fear is hard to let go of. For people who have spent their lives taking a neighborhood that looked like it had survived the Dresden bombing and turned it into the crown jewel of the Gem City, it seems reasonable to want some assurance that the neighborhood won’t backslide.
The truth is that no one is ever going to give the Oregon District the opportunity to vote Fifth Street dry. And, more importantly, having that option of voting the District dry is not a magic bullet. Voting Fifth Street dry would be an economic disaster for the city and the neighborhood. McPherson Town recently voted itself dry and lost Russ’s Market in the process; despite the fact that the neighbors wanted to grandfather Russ’s Market in, voting a neighborhood dry does not allow for grandfathering – it’s all or nothing.* A dry Fifth Street is in no one’s best interest, and, honestly, no one in the Oregon District wants to vote the District dry. The people who argue that the District needs the Rule of 17 because it can’t be voted dry just want the assurance that they would have recourse if things went to hell again. There are two ways to address this concern: educate those who need assurance about the ways in which cities are changing and develop a toolbox of real means by which backsliding can be addressed. These tools do exist and we will address some of these in future posts. The second issue, encroachment has a real, tangible, legally binding solution that the OHDS, OBDA, and City Commissioners are exploring right now. During a December meeting between the OHDS board and City Commissioners Nan Whaley and Joey Williams, Commissioner Whaley proposed – wait for it – voting the residential area dry. What?! Didn’t we just tell you that voting the District dry was in no one’s best interest? Yes, voting the business district dry is in no one’s best interest. Voting the residential portion of the Oregon District dry will establish a legal line beyond which no one may have a liquor license. The plan: the city will ask the Board of Elections to draw a new voting precinct comprised of the residential portion of the Oregon District. Once that precinct is established there will be a ballot initiative to vote the geographical area of that precinct dry. That geographical area will remain dry – even if the precinct lines are redrawn – unless another ballot initiative votes it wet. The Rule of 17 would be rescinded once the process of drawing up the precinct and voting are complete. Putting this solution into action is going to require a lot of work. The first hurdle is how to word the agreement between the OHDS and the OBDA to get the ball rolling. Specifically, should the Rule of 17 be rescinded if and only if the residential neighborhood is voted dry? What if the will the majority of voters don’t want the neighborhood dry? The second, larger, hurdle is how to draw the precinct. Options are being discussed range from following the lines of the Special Improvement District (SID), which would put all of Wayne, Patterson and Fifth Street in the wet district to just having Fifth Street and the section of Sixth Street where Jay’s Seafood is located in the wet district. And of course, third is if the neighborhood does need to be voted dry for the Rule of 17 to be rescinded, there will have to be a campaign to get the neighbors to support the vote. While there is a lot of work still to be done, this is progress. There are still a lot of people shouting on all sides and not listening to each other but momentum is building to finally change this situation. There is a new generation of business owners and residents who want to work together. We’ve seen it work in grassroots support of both Ghostlight Coffee and Olive. At this moment it is possible to strike a compromise and do away with a system that serves no one well. The single biggest challenge we face right now is trusting each other. We need to let go of the past – learn from it, but let go of our grudges and fears – and look to the future and become the community that we want to be, to move Dayton forward.
*A little clarification…. McPherson Town was not interested in grandfathering Russ’s market. Russ’s market’s alcohol sales and the repercussions we suffered in our neighborhood were very much an inspiration for the movement to vote our precinct dry for carryout alcohol. We would have love them to return to a grocery store and stay in operation. They chose not to or were unable to because of the loss in sales. –Laurie Trick