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A bill about to become law allows Arkansas cities to designate areas where outdoor alcohol consumption is allowed, and Texarkana could be among the first to do so.

Senate Bill 492 changes state law by allowing cities to create entertainment districts with their own alcohol-possession rules and by waiving existent rules that prohibit public drinking within such areas.

The Arkansas House passed the measure Monday, and the Senate followed on Wednesday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson will sign it into law, a spokesman said.

The city is ready to begin exploring how Texarkana can take advantage of the new law, Arkansas-side City Manager Kenny Haskin said.

"City staff has been working on an entertainment district concept and plans to make a presentation to its Planning Commission next week. Once completed, plans and the necessary City ordinance will include reasonable standards for regulation of alcoholic beverages within the district and safeguards for its citizens," he said in an email.

The idea is to create an entertainment district downtown, Haskin said, citing the Fort Worth, Texas, Stockyards as a model. With the appropriate city ordinances in place, a visitor could buy a beer "to go" at a downtown bar and walk with it to Front Street Festival Plaza to watch a parade, for example.

"Nationwide, entertainment districts have been found to rejuvenate cities, spur economic growth, generate tax revenues, and bolster cities' live-work-play images to potential businesses and residents. Proponents have said the districts become central gathering places, give their cities a heartbeat, become major drivers of economic development, and provide much needed jobs," Haskin said.

Haskin said potential benefits include more entertainment in outdoor venues; the ability to move freely between restaurants and taverns, bringing more visitors downtown; increased participation for events at downtown attractions such as the Municipal Auditorium; decreased "red tape" such as separate, special permits for each event; and "development of increased neutral outdoor spaces for community activities where citizens could enjoy a beverage while playing outdoor chess, checkers, etc., or participating in other social activities."

The change represents progress, said George Dodson, co-owner of Hopkins Icehouse on East Third Street.

"It's a big step in the process of getting more nightlife, more things to do, after work downtown," he said, adding that the city must set reasonable rules and establishments serving alcohol must continue to do so responsibly and legally.

"A lot of it is going to depend on the places of business abiding by the rules, not serving to anyone inebriated, not overserving. And if we all do that, then I don't think a whole lot is going to change," Dodson said.

If the city uses the new law, more entrepreneurs could be drawn downtown, Dodson said.

"Now all of a sudden downtown Texarkana, Ark., might be a little more attractive than somewhere else because it will be labeled as an entertainment district," he said.

The bill makes three specific changes to alcohol-related state statutes.

The state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Division statute prohibits taking alcoholic beverages outside establishments where on-premises consumption is allowed. But SB492 says the rule does not apply within a designated entertainment district.

Another statute exempts recognized religious ceremonies from rules against consuming alcohol in public. SB492 adds a second exemption for public drinking in entertainment districts.

The third change defines what a designated entertainment district is and authorizes cities to set alcohol-possession regulations that apply only within those districts.

An entertainment district must be a contiguous area zoned for commercial purposes that contains entertainment venues and tourist attractions such as restaurants, bars, art galleries, concert halls and dance clubs. An entertainment district may be permanent or temporary.

A city that establishes an entertainment district "shall set by ordinance reasonable standards for the regulation of alcohol possession" within it, the bill states.

ABCD permits will still be required to sell alcohol within an entertainment district, and except for the exemption carved out by SB492, all other ABCD rules and regulations will continue to apply.

The bill passed in the House with 51 votes for, 19 against, 20 not voting and 10 voting present. The Senate voted 18 for, 12 against, two not voting and three voting present.

Texarkana's delegation, Rep. Carol Dalby and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, voted for the measure.

"I supported the bill, as I believe that cities are in the best position to determine what is best for their citizens," Dalby said. Hickey was conducting Senate business and unavailable for comment Wednesday and Thursday.

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