Saline City Council Votes 5-2 Against Proposed Downtown Social Zone


Saline City Council voted 5-2 against implementing a downtown social district that would have allowed people to buy beverages in participating establishments and drink them while strolling around a small area of downtown Saline.

The social district differs from Umbrella Square, the dining area on South Ann Arbor Street used by Mac's Acadian Seafood Shack, Smokehouse 52, Brecon Grille and Carrigan Cafe. Umbrella Square represents extensions of those businesses, while a social district is a commons area defined by the local government and approved by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

Mayor Brian Marl and Councillors Dean Girbach, Janet Dillon, Jim Dell'Orco and Jack Ceo voted against the creation of the social district. Councillors Dawn Krause and Kevin Camero-Sulak voted to create a social zone.

Council discussed the issue for about 40 minutes during a work session prior to the regular meeting Monday. It was Council's third time addressing the issue.

Originally, Saline Main Street proposed the social zone to help create more foot traffic on the north side of downtown Saline. SoHo North, as it was to be dubbed, would compliment Umbrella Square on the south side. According to the plan, Salt Springs Brewery, Mac's Acadian Seafood Shack and Brecon Grille would have sold alcoholic beverages in specially marked containers that could then be carried and enjoyed through the district (see the map above) on sidewalks and in some of the businesses. Dan's Downtown Tavern, the lone north side alcohol-serving business, elected not to participate. Smokehouse 52, currently closed due to a COVID-19 case and facing other challenges, was also not included.

Argument in Favor of the District

Saline Main Street Director Holli Andrews told council the social district was needed to help make downtown Saline a destination. Andrews said Saline businesses need out-of-town visitors if they are to survive. 

"Unfortunately, Saline itself is not going to be able to pull these guys into recovery. They are still suffering. We didn't flip a switch and change the economic conditions that the pandemic left us in," Andrews said. "(The social district) would encourage (people in) surrounding communities to make Saline a destination for dining,  shopping et cetera. It's worked in other communities. We need to do all we can to help these (businesses)." 

Andrews said people waiting for tables at Saline's busy restaurants could order a drink and then stroll around the district and see what else downtown Saline offered. She noted that two northside businesses recently decided to close earlier on Thursday nights because the Salty Summer Music Series crowd wasn't crossing Michigan Avenue and visiting their stores. A social district could change that, she said.

Andrews said she polled businesses in the district and the idea received close to unanimous support. 

Ron Schofield, one of the owners of Salt Springs Brewery, said there was nothing radical about the proposal.

"The social district is simply a means of allowing people to come into town, purchase a beverage, walk around and enjoy the town and see what's going on," Schofield said.

He said Saline's establishments can be trusted to properly serve customers in a way that keeps the downtown safe.

"Fears that this might be some beer-fueled party I think are a little over-exaggerated. If it does turn into that, (Police Chief Jerrod Hart) is going to take care of that," Schofield said. "Getting people into town is really what this is about."

He said he visited Chelsea's social district and it was enjoyable and that people were well behaved.

Councillors Krause motioned to create the social district. Krause said any concerns she had about safety were alleviated by the words of Police Chief Hart.

"I trust that he would do what he had to do to keep everybody safe," Krause said. "I would implore my colleagues to try it, to take a leap of faith."

Camero-Sulak said Chief Hart's previous comments about other police chiefs experiencing few problems with social districts gave him confidence. He echoed Andrews' comments about bringing customers to downtown.

"I think we're losing people that are going to other communities to enjoy their social districts. I think we would keep some of our citizens here and (people from) other communities (would) come to us," Camero-Sulak said.

Arguments Opposed to the Social District.

Generally, there are two patrol officers on duty at any given time in the city. Despite Hart's assurances, several council members have expressed concern about dedicating police time to the downtown area.

Councillor Ceo noted that council has had difficulty understanding the ins and outs of the social district, and exactly where alcohol could and couldn't be consumed, so he thought it was going to be difficult to explain the rules to the public, and then have police enforce them.

"As confused as we are as the policymakers over the impact of this and how it will be enforced and the small number of police officers we have to enforce this, I am inclined at this time to vote against this," Ceo said. "I don't believe it's a reasonable expectation to place on a police department to be able to enforce this. I don't think there's enough benefit derived from it.  I don't think there's any place in the sidewalk for people to gather."

Several council members spoke about the lack of a true common gathering place.

Councillor Dean Girbach said he looked at social districts in Milan and Dexter and saw they had common areas - places for people to be social.

"They have two or three common areas in which they gather and in our approach, we don't really have any common areas. We just use the sidewalks," Girbach said.

Two potential public gathering spaces were Merchant Park and Leather Bucket Alley, but Merchant Park is complicated by the private ownership and public lease, and Leather Bucket Alley is being used by Smokehouse 52 to make the case to the state liquor commission that it's adjacent to Umbrella Square.

Councillor Jim Dell'Orco said that many of the state's social districts aren't dissected by a road the size of US-12 and he agreed with Ceo's take about the confusion around the social district and Umbrella Square.

"The presence of both Umbrella Square and the social district in proximity to one another creates some areas of gray that may even be construed as a statutory violation. So, I cannot support this," Dell'Orco said.

Girbach said he too was opposed to having two types of districts downtown. And, he said, he wasn't sure why the city wanted to allow drinking on the sidewalks.

"I have people asking me why we want to allow drinking on the sidewalks. All of our downtown restaurants now have developed outdoor seating," Girbach said. "We do need to get people downtown, but I think the focus needs to be on the different types of venues downtown - not necessarily the ability to drink."

During public comment, Clerk Terri Royal read a comment resident Mark Smith, who state his opposition to the social zone. 

"Given the fact that the downtown area is a very popular place for families to spend time in and pass through, it is not appropriate to allow and encourage free movement in that area by people who are consuming alcoholic beverages. Doing so and will effectively turn the downtown into an adults-only zone," Royal said, reading Smith's comment.

Several council members were also anxious about the creation of a social district that wouldn't sunset until 2026 without a public hearing process that could take up to 30 days.

Flipping the Music Series

Given the social district was devised to help the businesses on the north side of downtown, Councillor Dillon asked why Main Street wasn't flipping the music series to the north side of Michigan Avenue for a few weeks. Andrews said that with South Ann Arbor Street closed, Main Street didn't want to further inconvenience people by closing the north side.

Future of Umbrella Square

Umbrella Square is set to expire Aug. 29. Mayor Brian Marl said he planned to advocate for it remaining open through the end of September.

"I am in support of keeping that street closed for the month of September. It's my understanding from talking to a number of the restaurateurs that September 2020 was one of their better months because they were more apt to find Saline customers in Saline - as opposed to vacationing - and the weather was a bit more mild," Marl said.

In addition, the city will need to shut down South Ann Arbor Street for Oktoberfest for one weekend anyway. Saline Main Street President Jill Durnen said the downtown revitalization does plan to ask the city to close the street at the next council meeting, Aug. 16.

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