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Danville set to become first Virginia city with designated outdoor drinking area

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FILE - This Dec. 11, 2013, file photo, shows a beer at a microbrewery.

With spring weather finally coming around, you may be tempted to enjoy Happy Hour outside. But unlike Bourbon Street drinking in public is not legal throughout Virginia. However, that is set to change for at least one Virginia city.

Earlier this month Danville City Council voted to allow outdoor consumption of alcohol in their downtown area, called the River District.

Councilor Lee Vogler says it’s something he’s heard folks ask for for years, especially after local festivals.

“And so any time we’ve had these outdoor events in the downtown where you could eat and drink and socialize they’ve been very popular and folks said, ‘You know, I wish we could do this all the time,'" Vogler explains. "And so now, they will.” 

Virginia cities have long been able to get alcohol permits for short-term or one-day special events, but state law changed last summer – clearing the way for localities to create permanent spaces where outdoor drinking is allowed.

Danville will now be the first to take advantage. Vogler says city staff have been working on the plans for roughly a year.

“We’ve tried to think of every possible scenario and plan for that in advance to make sure we do this the right way,” Vogler says. 

Outdoor drinking won’t be allowed after midnight and the city is adding designated pick-up areas for taxis, Ubers or Lyfts. Following the new state law, drinks will also have to be in disposable containers from a local business.

“People can’t be walking up and down the street with like a tall boy, PBR or something," explains Vogler. "It’s got to be identifiable to the business that it came from." 

Rick Barker owns several properties, including two restaurants, in downtown Danville.

He’s excited about the upcoming change, saying he thinks visitors will find it appealing to be able to take a drink to go down the street or in the park.

He imagines customers lingering longer downtown.

“And so maybe the customer who's coming to – in our case – have a couple of tacos and a margarita and that check tab is $15 or $16 is maybe now instead of stopping by for lunch or dinner they call their friends, they invite a small group, and maybe they stay three hours and have two margaritas,” Barker says. 

Localities’ largest source of revenue is property taxes but many do also make a chunk of change from meals taxes. And Vogler is hopeful extra drinks will also mean extra dollars for the city.

“I think we all get excited about the big industries and the big companies that come in. But that added growth with your local small businesses adds up," says Vogler. "So, it checks off a lot of boxes in a positive direction for our city.” 

While Danville may be the FIRST locality in Virginia to set up a designated outdoor refreshment area, some are hoping it won’t be the last.

The Economic Development Authority in Williamsburg recommended the city council there consider the policy. And in Charlottesville, local media personality and Albemarle Board of Supervisors candidate Jerry Miller has been pushing Charlottesville to do the same.

“The downtown mall in Charlottesville is the most clear cut area for a designated outdoor refreshment area," Miller says. "It’s eight blocks, it has a start and a finish. And it’s a very controlled environment.” 

For its part Danville is now just waiting on state regulators to give the final stamp of approval. Other localities will certainly be watching to see how it goes.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.