JACKSON, Mich. — The Jackson Downtown Development Authority wanted to help bars and restaurants impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by creating a social district back in 2021. But after delays, city officials are hitting the pause button on the idea once again.
The idea of the social district was to allow people to grab a drink at a participating bar or restaurant, take it outside and walk around, according to the development authority's Executive Director Cory Mays.
“At the time, business was tough,” he said. “I mean there were a lot of our retail bars and restaurants that were very close to shutting the doors, they couldn’t pay staff, they couldn’t pay the bills. It was all they could do just to keep the lights on.”
The social district was supposed to launch in the summer of 2021, but only a handful of eligible places signed on. Mays said there were liability concerns.
“With only 1/3 of our participants in, we just didn’t think it would look good,” he said. “We didn’t want to put all of our eggs in that basket when it wasn’t going to be a really great launch so we just took a pause.”
After a recent board meeting, city officials have decided to put the social district on the back burner while turning their attention to other initiatives to get more people to visit downtown Jackson.
“We’re going to do whatever is best, whatever we feel is best for bars and restaurants,” Mays said. “We feel that it’s best to put a hold on it and to focus on outdoor seating initiatives, advertising that brings people downtown and helping with all sorts of platforms.”
The Crazy Cowboy owners signed up to participate in the social district, but after a stalled launch, they lost interest.
“At the time, we didn’t really have anybody coming and going and liquor was another choice that you could sell,” Owner Liz Wiginton said. “Now, we’re not doing a social district and we’re doing alcohol to-go, which the governor okayed. Through that we sell so much that way in margaritas so why change that?”
Wiginton said she felt she was being left in the dark over the logistics of the social district.
“When there was first interest during the shutdown, there were questions we had that were getting answered,” she said. “Now, those questions they don’t know how to answer it, and they’re just not answering the questions that we keep asking about. They say, ‘we’ll get back to you, we’ll get back to you.’ But like right now, they don’t even know I’m not interested.”
Mays said he knows there’s been frustration surrounding the proposed social district.
“It’s our job to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on,” Mays said. “If we’re sitting silent, if we’re not sharing information, we’re not doing our job. Sharing with our bars and restaurants and with our community members over why we went through it was good, this is why we still think it may be good in the future and this is why we’re going to wait now. We would never want to let anyone down, but we also don’t want to go all in on something from time aspect and from a funding aspect. These are tax dollars we’re spending, right? We’re funded by tax dollars. We want to do right by everybody and we just didn’t feel like we were going to do right by everybody if we went all the way.”
Mays said they have been working behind the scenes on planning, rules and regulations and logistics along with business and community outreach and will continue to do so.
“We’ve got a lot of community outreach to cities all around Michigan,” he said. “We’re still working out the kinks as far as what the licensure looks like and if we really think this is a good call. So, it’s definitely not dead by any means. It’s just not happening right now, and that might mean it comes back in six months or a year. It might mean we don’t revisit it and it just sits there and we find other activities that are more bang for our buck for our business owners.”
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