POCATELLO — A streamlined process has been implemented in Pocatello to allow bars, restaurants and brewpubs located in the Downtown Business Improvement District to expand their outdoor seating capacities and serve alcohol from those locations.
Stephanie Palagi, executive director of Old Town Pocatello Inc., and several city departments worked in conjunction to accelerate implementing the new process, which Palagi said will greatly enhance the dining experience in Old Town Pocatello during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“The whole intent of this is to enhance the economics of the downtown area by allowing folks to patronize the businesses there outside,” Palagi said. “This streamlined process will make it much easier for many downtown businesses to establish outside seating.”
Though this process has been one that Old Town Pocatello Inc. and the city have had on their radar for at least the past year, Palagi said the COVID-19 pandemic expedited discussions considering the impact state-mandated closures and restrictions have had on the dining sector of the local economy.
“One of the pivots we are seeing in downtown areas across the nation is the increased demand for outdoor dining space,” Palagi said. “Outdoor spaces are easier to maintain social distancing and some guests are feeling more comfortable with fresh air versus being inside. In our downtown area, we are seeing increased use of patios and additional tables and chairs being added outside restaurants and breweries.”
The process to establish new outdoor seating and provide patrons with alcohol at those locations is multifaceted and requires businesses to acquire a license from the city and inform the Alcohol Beverage Control Bureau about any changes to their approved alcohol serving footprint, which indicates where on the premises alcohol can be served.
The first step of the process involves businesses applying for a right of way use exception from the Pocatello Engineering Department to establish seating near their business on adjacent sidewalks and parking spaces that the city owns, says Pocatello Senior Planner Carl Anderson.
The application process involves the business providing the city with a plan detailing the layout of the additional outdoor seating on the sidewalk or within a parking space, called a parklet, that is adjacent to their building, Palagi said.
The submitted plan must meet several criteria to ensure city operations are not adversely affected by the additional seating space. For instance, any parklet that’s established cannot extend more than 7 feet from the curb into the street and can only be as long as the frontage of the business, Palagi said.
Then if provided a right of way use exception, the respective business, so long as it is located within the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), will automatically be allowed to serve alcohol at the newly established outside seating placements, Palagi said.
The Pocatello City Council last week approved a blanket waiver regarding open container laws for restaurants and bars located within the BID that will remain in effect until Oct. 31, Palagi said.
Moreover, Palagi noted the open container waiver only applies to the patrons consuming alcohol on the premises of the business that has secured right of way use exceptions, not to individuals consuming alcohol on the street, sidewalks or in other locations away from establishments located within the Downtown BID.
Further, only businesses located within the Downtown BID that currently possess a license to serve beer, wine or spirits can apply for the right of way use exception, Palagi said.
The Downtown BID encompasses the historic buildings to the immediate east and west of the Center Street underpass. On the west side of the railroad tracks, this area stretches roughly from Wyeth Street to Whitman Street and from Union Pacific Avenue to Garfield Avenue. On the east side of the tracks, the BID boundaries form a square around East Center Street: First Avenue to Third Avenue and Clark Street to Lewis Street.
Necessary liability insurance requirements are the primary reason this streamlined permit process is not currently being afforded to all downtown businesses nor others located throughout the Gate City, Palagi said.
“I work with the businesses inside the Downtown BID and to pull an open container waiver for all of those businesses I have to provide liability insurance,” Palagi said. “Now, if any business outside of the Downtown BID wants to go through the same process and provide the liability insurance, that is something they can explore on their own accord.”
The last step of the process requires businesses to notify the Idaho Alcohol Beverage Control Bureau of any changes to their alcohol serving footprints to include the new additional outdoor seating spaces, Palagi said.
“What we are trying to do is encourage more outside dining and service in Old Town Pocatello,” Palagi said. “Right now there are a number of folks who are uncomfortable dining and drinking inside and would rather be outside in the fresh air.”
Palagi said this new process to allow alcohol consumption on the sidewalks and parking spaces of businesses in the downtown area is something that downtown associations across the country are looking to implement, especially as many states, Idaho included, experience an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
“Many states are pushing their reopening stages back and we saw this recently in Idaho with Ada County,” Palagi said. “If that happens here, it is better to be prepared for that so that our bars and restaurants won’t have to close down completely because they’ll have an outdoor option.”
In future years, Palagi said the plan is to allow for outdoor seating on sidewalks and in parking spaces between April 1 and Oct. 31 and will not be allowed during the winter months to allow for the necessary snow removal from city streets and sidewalks.
“Outdoor dining has always been nice to have, but as of lately it’s almost like it’s a must-have,” Palagi said. “We are encouraging our businesses to get creative with their outdoor seating arrangements and look forward to seeing how much this will enhance the downtown dining experience.”