A grassroots push to allow open alcohol containers in downtown Helena drew both support and criticism during a city commission meeting Wednesday evening.
As currently proposed, the plan would allow people to have open alcohol containers in an area that stretches from Lewis and Clark Library to the Great Northern Town Center from 4-10 p.m. on weekdays and from noon-10 p.m. on weekends.
Mayor Wilmot Collins broached the subject, which was the first item up for discussion at an administrative meeting in which no vote was taken but public comment was accepted. Proponents and opponents were each granted 20 minutes to make their case.
Proponents took the floor first. Kev Hamm, the driver of the effort, argued that the open-container policy would allow more movement between businesses, enhancing the downtown economic picture.
“When people go to downtown, their business will not be locked into one business,” Hamm said. “It will allow downtown businesses to stay open and provide a more vibrant downtown.”
Hamm acknowledged that littering could be an issue, but said that should be part of a larger push to clean up downtown.
Colleen Casey, co-owner of the Hawthorn Bottle Shop, Matt Schmechel of the Windbag Saloon and Ethan Kohoutek of Ten Mile Creek Brewing all spoke in favor of the open-container policy. The three business owners also made sure to note that they were in support of a well-thought-out and thoroughly considered plan.
From the opposing side, Lee Holmes of the Last Chance Tour Train said he was worried about weekends “as alcohol flows more freely” and the interference of inebriated people with his business. Holmes said he would remove his tour train if necessary.
Ruth McArdle, who lives in the Placer Building on the Downtown Walking Mall, was highly displeased with the open-container plan.
“I have already seen lower property values and a lower quality of life” from living near an operating bar, McArdle said.
McArdle worried about enforcement as well, due to her personal experience living near a bar. She described the annoyances of living near a bar, saying she has to deal with cigarette smoke, trash, vomit and other bodily fluids in her neighborhood daily.
“Would you like to walk your dog on the walking mall in these kinds of conditions?” McArdle asked the commission.
Michelle Fairclough, a member of Youth Connections’ Board of Directors, worried about the message the open-container law would send to Helena's youth.
“We would like to state our fears that this policy says alcohol is necessary to have a good time,” Fairclough said.
“Families would like to do activities without being exposed to alcohol,” Fairclough said. “What messages are we sending our children?”
Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen said the issues being brought up by both sides were indicative of larger issues about cleanliness and downtown use.
Commissioner Ed Noonan saw the extent of the proposal as impractical.
Commissioner Haladay said that the goal now was to avoid making this issue a “proxy battle” between businesses and residents about being good neighbors and “banning substances” from Helena.
“I’ve seen a lot of comments that say open containers in Helena will lead to ‘that behavior,’ but I have not seen what ‘that behavior’ that open containers lead to is,” Haladay said.
Haladay mentioned that some comments suggested an open-container would make downtown Helena like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but he dismissed that suggestion outright.
“Bourbon Street is Bourbon Street because New Orleans wants it to be Bourbon Street,” Haladay said.
“We’ve dismissed these before with very little discussion or thoughtfulness,” Haladay said.