Outdoor drinking areas are booming across Ohio: What are they doing for Butler County

Designated outdoor refreshment area (DORA) districts have been a real boom for Butler County, and the state. NICK GRAHAM/FILE
Designated outdoor refreshment area (DORA) districts have been a real boom for Butler County, and the state. NICK GRAHAM/FILE

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Back in 2018, Dan Bates said he didn’t think an outdoor drinking area in Hamilton would have much of an economic impact.

“Boy, was I wrong,” said the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO.

The city of Hamilton’s designated outdoor drinking area , is the largest in the region, and Bates said it could be the largest in the state. And against his initial thoughts years ago, the district “has had a huge impact on economic development,” he said.

“We kept our DORA open through the entire (COVID) pandemic. It never closed, and that was a main reason why Municipal (Brew Works) and a lot of these other places did well,” said Bates. “Because even if they were shut down to foot traffic, they could still be open to the DORA. It saved some of our downtown businesses because it created some traffic on the sidewalk.”

Jennifer Acus-Smith and Stephen Smith walk down the sidewalk on High Street on the first day of Hamilton s Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) Thursday, May 3. The DORA is one of the city’s latest economic development efforts. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Jennifer Acus-Smith and Stephen Smith walk down the sidewalk on High Street on the first day of Hamilton s Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) Thursday, May 3. The DORA is one of the city’s latest economic development efforts. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The Ohio Department of Commerce has reported a 300% increase in active DORAs across the state over the past fiscal year.

The state has 81 of the designated districts that allow adults 21 years and older to purchase alcohol and walk around within the boundaries while drinking from a labeled cup. Last year, 32 communities in the state created the districts. So far this year, the Ohio Division of Liquor Control has approved 23 designated areas, and three more are pending.

It’s evident more communities believe there is benefit in creating the designated drinking areas, said Michael Gravely, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Commerce.

“Anecdotally, some embraced the option during the pandemic because it enabled customers to social distance outside while dining at bars and restaurants,” Gravely said.

Hamilton’s current DORA district is around 250 acres, nearly three times that of the newly formed DORA at The Banks in Cincinnati. Hamilton spokesperson Brandon Saurber the city is able to expand the DORA district further and officials “have had some internal discussions about options to do so. Because of the success of our DORA, an expansion is likely. However, the specifics and the timeline for doing so are not certain.”

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“The DORA has been a boon to many of our downtown businesses,” he said. “The DORA has been noted by some as a job-saver during the pandemic. This program has not only helped our businesses but also helped make Hamilton a regional destination.”

In May 2020, Municipal Brew Works told the Journal-News the DORA “has allowed us to maintain our employees,” only laying off one beer production employee at that time.

The first DORA district in the state was formed in Middletown in 2015, and inFebruary, Middletown City Council approved to continue the DORA district another five years, and expand its boundaries. Ohio law requires DORA districts to be reviewed every five years, according to state law.

“The DORA has proven to be successful in Middletown,” said Assistant City Manager Susan Cohen in February. “The city has been able to maintain public safety and sanitation in the area with limited problems or on-going concerns.”

This decal, now on a Hamilton business, indicates that people are welcome to shop inside with adult drinks. The signs are part of the city’s new Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area program, which launches Thursday. MIKE RUTLEDGE/STAFF
This decal, now on a Hamilton business, indicates that people are welcome to shop inside with adult drinks. The signs are part of the city’s new Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area program, which launches Thursday. MIKE RUTLEDGE/STAFF

Oxford and Liberty Center are the other areas in Butler County with a DORA district, but two of the county’s largest communities ― West Chester Twp. and the city of Fairfield ― have had discussions on possibly forming an outdoor drinking district.

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Officials in Fairfield, which is Butler County’s third-largest city, have not had formal discussions, but Acting City Manager Don Bennett said, “in that informal dialogue, we don’t feel we would meet the state’s criteria to establish one.”

The DORA districts are typically in a community’s downtown, but Fairfield’s informal downtown is Village Green, and there are not enough establishments.

“We would not even meet the state’s requirements to even think about it,” he said.

West Chester Twp., the state’s largest township, is refreshing some earlier research on DORAs, said township spokeswoman Barb Wilson.

“In a recent Board of Trustees meeting, interest was expressed in updated information regarding DORAs and the number of liquor permits accessible to West Chester,” she said.

West Chester Twp. could establish a DORA district at the VOA Retail Center or the Streets of West Chester, however, Wilson said neither was found to be conducive to a DORA from a safety perspective.

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“In each case, there were busy roads and/or parking lots that would have to be crossed to access the larger district,” she said. “There was no compelling argument or interest from our businesses to enact a DORA when last studied.”

Staff writers Ben Conroy and Eileen McClory contributed to this story.

Middletown DORA.
Middletown DORA.

DORAs in Southwest Ohio

There are 81 DORA districts in Ohio as of July 1. Here are the 16 Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) districts in Butler, Hamilton and Warren counties:

Cheviot – Hamilton County

Cincinnati – Hamilton County

Deerfield Twp. – Warren County

Hamilton – Butler County

Harrison – Hamilton County

Loveland – Hamilton County

Lebanon – Warren County

Liberty Center – Butler County

Mariemont – Hamilton County

Mason – Warren County

Middletown – Butler County

Montgomery – Hamilton County

Oxford – Butler County

Sharonville – Hamilton County

Springboro – Warren County

Wyoming – Hamilton County