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On-street drinks stir debate, pass

The City Council agreed Tuesday night to provide the local Chamber of Commerce with help for seven community events throughout 2013, but not before Council Member Christopher Gagne questioned the open-container exceptions and street closure.

The chamber traditionally comes once per year, asking for the help it needs to host the St. Patrick's Day Bed Races, Town and Country Day, River Falls Days, summer Cruze-In car-motorcycle events, Showdown on the Kinni and the River Dazzle celebration.

That includes everything from barricades for street closures and extra police officers to exceptions for noise and alcohol.

Gagne prefaced his questions with praise for the chamber and its work and hospitality.

But he's heard from families who don't want to come downtown for the events at which people may carry an alcoholic beverage in a special, plastic event cup. One woman told him a drunk had "dumped" beer on her child.

Gagne said he spoke on behalf of individual constituents as well as businesses, some of which are chamber members. He reported getting one email signed by a group whom wanted to remain anonymous.

The main beefs he hears are about why it is necessary to have alcohol in the street and how the street closures hurt local businesses by blocking access and parking for regulars and non-event traffic.

According to the documents with the request, the RFPD and its chief don't recommend the open-container practice. Concerns include a limited-oversight environment, more public urination, easier access for minors, confusion about the parameters and hours of the open-container exception, more trash and a greater proliferation of alcohol.

Gagne said allowing drinks on the street gives the wrong perception of the city and portrays it as a party place. He pointed out that the 'beer corral' at River Falls Days has a fence for a reason.

"I think it opens a Pandora's Box to allow people to be drinking downtown who shouldn't be," he said.

Gagne hesitated to approve all the events after having heard people's concerns, among them the street closures during all-day or several-hour events.

Gagne confirmed that the plan was to have Main Street closed in both directions for St. Patrick's Day, four summer vehicle events and a fall car show.

Kris Ainsworth, serving as the chamber's interim CEO, said the chamber is aware of some concerns but has had more positive feedback than negative. The chamber surveyed members and non-members, receiving two negative responses out of 25.

She's had people tell her it is a nice, relaxing atmosphere at downtown activities with the open containers. They appreciate not to have to "slam" a beer at the bar but carry it to enjoy at the event.

Ainsworth said she's conducted research but finds no problems have resulted from having a few events per year with open-container exceptions.

For 2013, the request was to have the open-container exception for St. Patrick's Day, the fall car Cruze-In, and the late-November River Dazzle celebration.

Council Member David Reese asked what other benefit to the community the alcohol exception provided other than patrons not having to slam their beer in the bar. He realized people buy the plastic event cups but wondered if the bars make any more money than usual.

"I've never really been sure why people need to take their beer outside and go from bar to bar," he said.

Council Member David Cronk said he's heard some concerns, too, but reiterated what the support documents also observe -- there haven't been any big problems as a result of the exceptions.

Cronk said he also wants to help the chamber in its efforts to draw people downtown and to River Falls in general.

He added, "The only one that concerns me is the River Dazzle because there are so many children there."

Ainsworth reiterated the survey results and said the chamber supports the event decisions because it's what their members want. She could think of one family whose members don't agree on the policy.

Mom doesn't like it but refuses to let the kids miss something as unique as bed races. Dad likes having a beer while he watches.

Gagne said in the future, he'd like to see the chamber host events without alcohol.

He also made a motion to amend the requests for closing both lanes of Main Street during several events, asking to close only one lane instead. His motion died due to lack of a second.

With Council Member Scott Morrissette abstaining from the vote since he chairs the chamber board, the council approved the requests, including street closures and open containers.