As a follow-up to my previous article (please read first) detailing my take on the situation in the Oregon District, I’ll begin by telling you that at last night’s Oregon Historic District Society (OHDS) general membership meeting that I attended, the board of trustees ultimately voted to sign a letter of agreement with the City of Dayton and the Oregon District Business Association that abolishes the “Rule of 17” – an informal resolution passed by city commission stating that at the neighborhood’s request, the city commission would formally object to the State of Ohio Division of Liquor Control any liquor license applications within the OD above and beyond 17. The funny thing is, after having sat through this sometimes-contentious two-hour meeting with the board and a couple dozen or so neighborhood residents, I get the feeling that this was about much more than liquor licenses. The following is my personal account of the meeting, and my personal view of the situation.
After other less controversial neighborhood business, the discussion turned to the “Rule of 17” and I quickly understood just how deep the divide is between the neighborhood OHDS and the Oregon District Business Association (ODBA). It is possible that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict might be an easier nut to crack than the OD Divide, with the City of Dayton playing a similar role to the U.S. in that never-ending struggle. As the conversation moved between trustees and neighborhood residents in the audience (no ODBA or City of Dayton reps were present – correction, one trustee and at least one audience member were ODBA members but not officially representing the ODBA at this meeting), I quickly noticed that many people looked at the situation in terms of a negotiation – one in which they insisted on “getting something” in return for their “concessions” with the perceived enemy. Emotions ran high with some, and at one point an audience member even started cursing before storming out. Dissension among the trustees was also obvious despite their genuine attempt to maintain a level of professional decorum.
The specific issue at hand was an agreement drafted by the City of Dayton and signed by the president of the ODBA that outlined a series of steps involving the drawing of new precinct boundaries between the neighborhood and business district, the creation of a ballot measure in which neighborhood residents would have the opportunity to vote their neighborhood precinct “dry” (meaning no liquor license applications could be granted to any business within the residential neighborhood), and finally the abolishment of the “Rule of 17”. (DaytonMostMetro.com obtained a copy of this letter that can be downloaded here) As it is worded, the abolishment of the “Rule of 17” would take effect once the letter was signed – language that was the center of debate at the OHDS meeting.
Some trustees and residents voiced concern that if the letter was signed as was currently worded, neither the ODBA nor the city would be required to actually work with the OHDS on the new precinct boundaries or ballot measure and there was the potential for the neighborhood to “get nothing in return” for abolishing the “Rule of 17”. One trustee insisted that getting rid of the “Rule of 17” would not necessarily mean that desirable businesses would suddenly begin to fill the vacant spaces that exist on Fifth Street. An audience member dismissed the usefulness of voting the neighborhood precinct dry since any new bar or restaurant would most likely be looking to locate in the business district anyway. Various audience members voiced concern about parking issues and potential for more problems in the neighborhood should more businesses open along Fifth Street. It was hard to tell but it seemed like half of those opposed simply wanted to maintain the status quo, and the other half were willing to move forward but wanted stricter language in the agreement that ensured that the ballot measure to vote the neighborhood precinct dry was implemented before getting rid of the “Rule of 17”.
Some in favor of moving forward believed the city commission and others viewed the OHDS as an unreasonable body not willing to compromise on anything, and that by simply signing the agreement and trusting the other parties to continue to work in good faith would help the OHDS’s image and help finally bring the neighborhood and business district together. One trustee made the point that the “Rule of 17” had little meaning as an informal resolution that neither the city commission nor the state liquor board were bound to abide to. Another trustee made a motion to draft an alternative letter that would abolish the “Rule of 17” once new precinct lines were drawn and the city commission passed an informal resolution stating that they would work with the neighborhood to get the ballot measure implemented by 2012. After a lot of back and forth between trustees and audience members, that motion was removed and another trustee moved (in an almost “let’s just do it and go home” gesture) that the board simply sign the letter as is and be done with it. By then it had been almost two hours since the meeting started, and the feeling that this whole thing would likely be drawn out for eternity was suddenly replaced with a climatically abrupt and suspenseful vote by the board of trustees.
The vote started with one trustee who went on to explain her no vote until shockingly being yelled at by another trustee who insisted that everybody had their chance to speak and nothing more needed to be said. The next three trustees voted yes, the next three voted no. 4-3 no, with two more to go… the next trustee voted yes and the deciding vote came down to the board president. I think everybody expected the board president to vote no which at best would draw this process out until God knows when; at worst it would simply stop all progress and further the divide between neighborhood and business district. But in a dramatic climax that had the feel of a “Law and Order” court scene, the board president gave his one-word response… “Yes”. The motion passed 5-4 and the thick suspense that had been hanging in the room was quickly replaced by gasps – some of victory, some of defeat. The meeting was quickly adjourned and I left minutes later. I have no idea if blood was spilled after that.
Now understand – while I personally know many of the players involved on both sides and plenty of residents in the OD, my perspective is that of somebody who does not live there. I’ve never been to an OHDS meeting before last night. But in the two hours I spent at that meeting and with a better-than-average knowledge of the issues, I can comfortably offer my perspective. This is a complicated issue that goes way beyond the “Rule of 17”, and while I still believe the decision to abolish it was good, I doubt doing so will do much to solve the real problems of the neighborhood, nor will it magically bring all of the Meadowlarks and Rue Dumaines of the world to Fifth Street. The residents against getting rid of the “Rule of 17” have very valid concerns, and the more I heard those concerns last night the more I get the feeling that many held onto the “Rule of 17” because they felt it was the only thing they had to maintain their quality of life. Granted, it is still my belief that if you want peace and quiet then go live in Oakwood – but even somebody looking for the urban living experience shouldn’t have to be woken up in the middle of the night on a regular basis by drunk assholes smashing beer bottles and pissing on a few houses on the way to their parked cars that they probably shouldn’t be driving anyway. I really believe that if the city granted the neighborhood permit parking then the liquor license debate would end for most people in the neighborhood. It is time for the city to step up and seriously work with the neighborhood to get something to that effect passed. Fix the atrocious intersection at Fifth and Patterson and make it pedestrian friendly. Finish by making the massive Transportation Garage (that is literally steps away but barely used by OD patrons) more inviting with nice lighting and signage. Parking problem solved… you’re welcome.
As for the feud between the OHDS and ODBA, I think it comes down to a few personalities on both sides that have long ago given up on working together. I have no idea who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps just because of the nature of things (bars and homes rarely mix well), there will always be friction. But without a true cooperative spirit, the OD will never reach its full potential. Perhaps it is time for those who refuse to let go of the past to become part of the past and step aside so that those with fresh ideas and optimism untainted by past failures can step forward and lead the OD into a brighter future.
Now excuse me while I go have a drink with a side of irony at my neighborhood bar, which happens to be… the Southern Belle.