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Saturday, March 02, 2024

Gainesville City Commission passed open-container ordinance to revert back to pre-pandemic wording

The ordinance will also include the creation of entertainment districts in downtown Gainesville, Grove Street

In a 4-3 vote Thursday, the City Commission decided to officially ban the public consumption and possession of alcohol and create an entertainment district — designated spaces for public drinking in Downtown Gainesville and Grove Street. 

Commissioners Reina Saco, Bryan Eastman and Casey Willits voted against the ban of open container drinking. 

The creation of an Arts, Culture and Entertainment district also passed with a 4-3 vote. Commissioners Cynthia Chestnut, Desmon Duncan-Walker and Ed Book voted in dissent.

The  ordinance will penalize those found unlawfully consuming and possessing open container alcoholic beverages in public areas with a civil citation, according to Gainesville Police Department Chief Lonnie Scott.

The commissioners clarified open container alcoholic beverages are permitted within a patio or porch that is attached to a zoned permanent building, such as bars, restaurants and alcoholic manufacturing businesses. Street drinking, however, is not permitted.

Both ordinances are expected to go into effect Jan. 1 and will allow for open-container alcohol consumption from 8 a.m. to midnight.

More severe penalties such as a criminal citation will be imposed based on the escalation of a person’s aggressive behavior that poses a threat to public safety, Scott said. 

“We're not sitting there in a car, waiting for someone to walk across the line with an open container," he said. "We're looking at the behavior that poses a threat to public safety."

Saco and Willits both said there's a lack of evidence and data for a correlation between alcohol consumption and gun violence. 

“I understand the basic idea of lots of people having problems with alcohol and with violence, there can be some strong ties, but the data nationwide on gun death doesn’t really support it,” Willitis said. 

Saco requested GPD collect data related to violent crimes such as blood alcohol content or intoxication levels using mobile breathalyzers. 

“I think given the fact and one of the criticisms of this policy being the lack of hard data, it would behoove us to start collecting that data at least as far as violent crime so we can get to a definitive source," she said. "Or at least rule out elements that may be contributing."

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Following the commission’s direction, city staff simplified the original proposed map of a downtown entertainment district by moving district boundaries inward. The district currently includes Grove Street and Depot Park. 

Chestnut wants city staff to create a document of frequently asked questions to distribute and help people interpret the open container restrictions, she said.

This would be in addition to the various signage and curb painting that Andrew Persons, chief operating officer for the City of Gainesville, said will be implemented to help guide residents within the entertainment district. 

“We would look at installing signs along various points in the boundaries," Persons said. "I did want to mention that there is a requirement that any of the businesses in the district also put a map of the district inside of the establishment."

City manager Cynthia Curry addressed financial concerns over curb painting and signage by citing one revenue source, Gainesville Community Reinvestment Act.

There are no other identified funding sources, but Curry said that city staff “are utilizing that same source to work with the consultants that are helping us to vision our strategic plan and the downtown business improvement district” to narrow down the costs. 

Duncan-Walker raised concerns about providing some sort of protection for historically black neighborhoods who have experienced traffic burdens from nearby patrons who park in front of driveways and block access to homes near downtown. 

Persons said  the primary way to address permitted parking in the city is by obtaining a parking decal from the police department. here are designated parking zones in certain areas of the city to deal with neighborhood parking, he said.

Eastman said people who experience parking issues downtown should use current parking levers like the parking garage. 

Mayor Harvey Ward motioned to exclude public parking lots and garages from the entertainment district proposal, referring to his concerns of disruptive groups and individuals that are seen in the parking lots and other areas.

“I don't believe that we are rushing or pushing. We have literally been working on this for months. We are at any decision point,” Ward said. “There's no reason that we can't come back and do other cleanups in future if that's where we want to go.”

Willits is worried about how the ordinance will affect tailgating events and football games, he said. He showed pictures taken from the University of Florida's Tennessee football game showing groups of people openly carrying alcoholic beverages.

City manager Cynthia Curry clarified all of UF's home football games are issued one alcohol event permit that applies for the whole school year. 

Additionally, temporary outdoor events that are located within a business, mixed-use or industrial zoning district may apply for up to six alcohol permits a year. 

These permit applications must include a sketch of the designated area for temporary alcoholic sales and be in compliance with the city's noise ordinance. These events must be secured with fences or barricades with a minimum of four feet in height and have limited entry and exit points. 

Jacob Larson, 47-year-old owner of the Bull, was elated to hear that downtown businesses will be able to continue services within an entertainment district, he said.

“This generation has really changed the way that they do evenings. And part of our business model is then to create more opportunities that bring people here,” Larson said.

He believes that an entertainment district will be inclusive of various cultural experiences, like the dance events that occur every Thursday evening outside the Bull. 

Larson said that he does not see a correlation between young college students of drinking age and violence. 

“I think that what happened was there was an opportunity for the leniency that existed in our city for lots of people to come here and things got out of hand in places that were not people buying from our bars and our restaurants,” he said. “ This is [the newly-passed ordinances], I think, addressing that and hopefully it will solve that issue.”

Contact Kat Tran at ktran@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran.

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 


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