Dayton’s Oregon District is an interesting combination of entertainment district and upscale historic residential neighborhood. It didn’t always have the upscale side though, until the 1970’s and ’80s when some very dedicated citizens began to move into the very rough hood and started bringing back historic homes to their original glory. In addition to the enormous task of rehabbing old homes, these urban pioneers had to contend with some of the roughest bars in the city. Not just Fifth Street establishments that helped the district earn the nickname “Filth and Wine”, but especially places like the old Southern Belle and Fred & Sylvia’s situated in the residential neighborhood’s interior. It was their persistence and never-say-die attitude that helped transform the district into what it is today. While many of those original pioneers have since moved on, there are still some left and to many of them the fight to keep the riffraff out has never ended.
Before I detail the current situation, here is a brief history of the OD’s liquor permit saga as I understand it based on conversations with several people in the OD:
In 1997, the neighborhood association called the Oregon Historic District Society (OHDS) approved the first liquor permit policy for the district, limiting the total number of allowable permits to 17. A few years later they reduced it to 16, but in 2004 the City of Dayton approved an additional permit for Coco’s Bistro, with the OHDS deferring to the city. Soon afterward, the city commission adopted an informal resolution that ensured the commission would not approve liquor permits for the OD above the 17 threshold, and the “Rule of 17” was born. It should be noted that the State of Ohio Division of Liquor Control ultimately approves or denies liquor permits in Ohio, and while it does consider the City of Dayton Commission recommendations, it does not have to follow them.
In 2007, Thai 9 owner Rob Strong opened the 5th Street Wine & Deli and requested a beer & wine permit. Since there were already 17 liquor permits, the OHDS objected and the city formally objected to the state. The state overruled the city and granted the 5th Street Deli its permit, and since the Dayton Gym Club building was sold to the Dayton Theatre Guild without transferring its liquor permit, the total number came back down to 17 and the city did not appeal the 5th Street Deli case. However, this situation worsened the already contentious relationship between the OHDS and the Oregon District Business Association (ODBA) – a group focused on the OD’s business district.
In 2009, an established bed & breakfast called Inn Port D’Vino applied for its own liquor permit, and the OHDS and subsequently the City of Dayton objected – again based on the Rule of 17. Like with the 5th Street Wine & Deli, the state liquor board overruled the city and granted the permit, but this time the city appealed at the request of the OHDS board and in 2010 the state board overturned their original decision to grant the permit. Jeff and Leslie Gonya (owners of Inn Port D’Vino) are appealing that decision and it is currently pending. They gathered 172 signed petitions from OD residents in an effort to abolish the “Rule of 17”, which they presented to both OHDS and the city commission. Soon the discussion on whether or not the current “Rule of 17” is still necessary or in fact a detriment to positive growth in the OD was at the forefront. The debate is not simple and has many sides, including those who want to simply abolish the “Rule of 17” in favor of more business growth, those who do not want any additional alcohol-serving businesses no matter what – and those who fall in the middle. The later group wants to see 5th Street thriving with more classy establishments like Side Bar and Thai 9 (and less vacant spaces) but are concerned with the possibility that undesirable bars might open shop – and some may even try to open in the interior of the residential neighborhood and jeopardize the quality of life that now exists.
In November 2010, Dayton Commissioners Joey Williams and Nan Whaley met with the OHDS board and suggested a possible solution that all parties might approve. This involves the ability for the city to divide the OD into two separate voting precincts – the residential neighborhood and the 5th Street business district (based on new SID boundaries that includes existing businesses off of 5th such as Thai 9, Jay’s Seafood and Inn Port D’Vino). The residential precinct could then vote itself dry, meaning that no liquor permits could be granted to any business within the residential precinct – a binding law that unlike the informal “Rule of 17” resolution, could not be overruled by the city commission or the state liquor board. With this in place, it is believed that an overwhelming majority of neighborhood residents would then approve getting rid of the “Rule of 17” in favor of more growth in the business district. As it stands, a letter of agreement between the OHDS and ODBA for the purposes of establishing a new voting precinct in the OD has been signed by the ODBA president Mike Martin, and the ball is now in the OHDS’s court. There is a monthly general membership OHDS meeting tomorrow (Tuesday February 8 at 7pm), and while the OHDS board doesn’t necessarily have to vote on anything it is believed that this will be the main topic of discussion. Proponents of the agreement are urging fellow residents to attend this meeting and have their voices heard.
In my many discussions with various players in this saga, I believe there are still neighborhood influencers and OHDS board members who will likely continue to push to keep things as they are, with the “Rule of 17” kept intact. Sources tell me that the board is evenly split on this latest proposal, and it is unlikely the board will vote in favor of the proposed agreement because of a concern about a lack of specific language that would require the precinct lines be drawn and the dry-neighborhood proposition be placed on a ballot before removing the “Rule of 17” (a feeling that the ODBA refuses to cooperate because of a few conflicting personalities on both sides also exists among various residents). Ironically, the neighborhood risks losing all protection including the “Rule of 17” regardless of whether or not the OHDS votes to move forward with the agreement, since the “Rule of 17” is an informal resolution that the city commission could eventually dismiss anyway – a distinct possibility given that the most recent commission vote to appeal the state’s granting of a liquor licence to the B&B barely passed 3-2 (with Nan Whaley and Matt Joseph opposing the appeal). Not to mention that the state can grant liquor licenses regardless of the “Rule of 17”. Only by voting the residential precinct dry can the OD residents guarantee that no bars can open in the residential neighborhood.
As objectively as I’ve tried to present this complicated situation, I should disclose my own personal bias. I don’t live in the OD but I have lived downtown for the past 7 years, and while I understand the residents’ concerns about the impacts that businesses on Fifth Street have on their quality of life, I also think that the “Rule of 17” is a draconian tool that has negatively impacted the vibrancy of Fifth Street. The OD is not just a historic neighborhood with a business district, but it is THE entertainment district for the city and the only authentically local entertainment district in the region; its vibrancy or lack thereof affects all of us, not just the OD neighborhood. This latest proposal makes sense, and I applaud the leadership that Nan Whaley and Joey Williams have shown in bringing it to the OHDS. I also applaud the efforts of people like Lt. Larry Faulkner, who has been working closely with bar owners to make sure that incidents are reduced. It is time for the OHDS to recognize that the status quo is not acceptable, and it is time to adapt to changing times. It is also time for the ODBA to get over past differences between various individuals and understand that there are in fact many residents and OHDS board members that want the same thing as they do – a vibrant business district. If language has to be adjusted to make more people comfortable, then make it happen so that we can finally get rid of the “Rule of 17” and move closer toward a united and thriving Oregon District that the rest of the city and region can be proud of.
I attended the public OHDS membership meeting following this article on Tuesday 2/8 – here is the follow-up.