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Ohio bill would put open-container areas in cities

CINCINNATI (AP) — In the vein of the Las Vegas Strip and the streets of New Orleans, two Ohio lawmakers want the state's biggest cities to have entertainment districts where revelers can take their alcoholic drinks outdoors.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday by Sen. Eric Kearney proposes to allow cities with more than 50,000 residents to create designated areas exempt from Ohio's state law against open containers.

That could mean open containers in Cincinnati's popular Over-the-Rhine historic neighborhood, Cleveland's struggling waterfront area known as The Flats, the Arena District in Columbus and the area around downtown Toledo's Mud Hens stadium.

But 11 other Ohio cities would be able to create such open-container districts under the bill, including Akron, Canton, Parma, Youngstown, Dayton, Hamilton and Springfield, among others.

If it gains enough support, the bill could pass in the summer, but more likely the fall, and go into effect by year's end.

"This would allow a festival atmosphere, an open atmosphere, much like the one on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis," Kearney told The Associated Press on Friday.

Kearney, a Cincinnati Democrat, said he got the idea for the bill from his staffers, who are largely in their 20s.

"I kind of got the concept from them and understood how it would work and how it would be attractive to get tourism in some of our major urban areas in Ohio, generate more activity and kind of add to the cool factor," he said.

The bill stipulates that alcohol must be bought within a given district — not from the outside — and limits the size of the districts to a squared half-mile.

Kearney also said that cities would not be required to allow open containers anywhere, but the bill gives them the freedom to do so and the authority to decide where such districts could go.

The bill would allow cities with populations of 50,000 to 150,000 people such as Dayton and Canton to create one such district. Cities of 150,000 to 300,000 people — like Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron — could create two. The only two cities with more than 300,000 people, Columbus and Cleveland, could have three.

Republican Sen. Bill Seitz of Green Township, just outside of Cincinnati, is a co-sponsor of the bill and said he's optimistic that it will pass.

"Not too many Democratic bills pass in a Republican General Assembly — that's why I figured I could give it a boost by making it bipartisan," he said. "Hopefully it'll get some legs and it'll get passed."

He said it's still early but he hasn't heard any criticism of the bill yet.

"I imagine there might be some sticks in the mud that might be opposed, but we'll see how it plays out," he said.

Spokesmen for the mayors of Columbus and Cleveland said it was too early for them to take a stance on it but that they would watch the bill's progress in the Legislature.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory said he needs to learn more about the legislation, but that it sounds like a great idea, especially if car traffic is reduced or eliminated in such districts at certain times.

"It could really help us to create even more energy in some areas of the city," he said.

He said the idea could work at a new mixed-use development in between the Reds and Bengals stadiums along the Ohio River known as The Banks and in the Over-the-Rhine historic neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati, which was the site of the city's race riots in 2001 but is in the middle of a major transformation into a trendy restaurant and bar scene.

People enjoying spring on Friday at the newly renovated Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine had mixed feelings about the proposal.

"You want to make sure the right type of people are in the park," said Joy Ireland, a 47-year-old resident of Newport, Ky., across the Ohio River, who was with her 4-year-old daughter. "But if it was a Friday night, and my husband I are out with the kids and they wanted to play in the park, I'd carry my cocktail over here. It'd be fun."

Jay Pouncy, a 43-year-old longtime Over-the-Rhine resident who was in the park with her 3-year-old grandson, said she likes the idea, as long as the situation doesn't get out of hand.

"There has to be security for people who get out of line," she said. "There will always be people who act a fool."

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