ANOKA, Minn. — Almost three years ago, Jess Pratt and her husband opened Ambi Wine Bar in historic downtown Anoka on the corner of Second Avenue and Jackson Street.
The location was no accident.
"We're kind of a hidden gem," Pratt said. "There are so many little boutiques, the river, all the bars and restaurants that you want."
For that reason, Pratt supports the city's idea to create a "social district" on Jackson Street, allowing people to buy an alcoholic beverage at one restaurant and then take it outside to drink on the block. If the plan moves forward, Anoka would make Minnesota history as the first city in the state to implement this type of entertainment zone.
"The city wants it to be something like Bourbon Street," Pratt said, "where it brings people in, and makes downtown Anoka a destination."
The move, however, would require a change to state liquor law, since current Minnesota statute prevents people from buying beverages at restaurants to consume off-site.
Earlier this month, the Anoka City Council voted unanimously on a measure "requesting state legislative action" on the matter, hailing the potential social district as a boost to local businesses emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Phil Rice, for example, said the social district could help facilitate events like the Anoka High School All Class Reunion, where people are already mingling at multiple establishments on Jackson Street.
Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids) and Rep. John Heinrich (R-Anoka) are currently working to include legislation authorizing Anoka's social district in the upcoming omnibus liquor bill. The bill received a hearing in committee last week.
In an interview with KARE 11, Stephenson said the concept of social districts have worked well in other parts of the U.S.
North Carolina, for example, just recently added a new law for municipalities to create these entertainment areas.
While Stephenson's proposal would only apply to Anoka, it's possible other cities could make a push for similar social districts in the future.
"We're willing to give it a shot with Anoka, and we think Anoka has a good place to try it out," Stephenson said. "If it works well with Anoka, I don't see why we wouldn't do it with other places around the state."
The idea does not come without some concerns, particularly from those who worry about enforcement and rowdy crowds developing on the block.
During a meeting last week, Anoka City Council member Elizabeth Barnett raised questions about whether a newly-created social district would cost taxpayers money, in the form of police overtime or first responders.
"I do support this," Barnett said, "but I want to be mindful as we're walking into this, that we don't get a situation where our police are being strained for time, for hours, for money, where we're putting the city in any sort of liability position."
At that same meeting, Anoka Community Development Director Doug Borglund told the city council that the social district would likely be restricted to a one-and-a-half block radius around Jackson Street and may last only from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The state legislation currently under review would make sure the city implemented strict rules, stipulating that "the city of Anoka must establish management and maintenance plans for the social district and post these plans, along with a rendering of the boundaries of the social district and days and hours during which alcoholic beverages may be consumed in the district."
"Our bill is careful about that. It requires the city to have a plan to really cordon off the area," Stephenson said, "mark it well, make sure it's only specific hours, at a specific place. They'd really have to come up with a good plan, but I think Anoka can do that."
As city leaders await state legislative action, council member Erik Skogquist told KARE 11 they'll consult with business owners and residents in the coming months about the possibility of the social district. The city may also explore physical improvements to the Jackson Street area, Skogquist said, such as expanding sidewalks or making the zone more friendly to pedestrians.
Watch more local news:
Watch the latest local news from the Twin Cities in our YouTube playlist: