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Kansas Moves Toward Allowing Outdoor Drinking Districts

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Kansas cities may soon be able to designate districts where patrons can move among bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, drinks in hand.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a bill that would allow areas similar to Kansas City, Missouri's Power and Light District, where patrons can leave bars with their alcoholic beverages and move around a common area. Lawmakers are working toward a resolution between the two versions.

Under the bill, patrons could walk out of a bar or restaurant and into a clearly-marked common consumption area with a drink in a marked cup. Local governments would have to pass ordinances to set up consumption areas and determine operating hours. The city or county or a private organization would then get a permit from the Department of Revenue to run the common area, and surrounding bars and restaurants could ask to participate.

Lenexa city leaders sought the bill so vendors could sell liquor at the city's new public market set to open this summer. Mike Nolan, assistant to the Lenexa city administrator, said current law "carves out every drinking establishment as its own little box" rather than allowing patrons to carry drinks as they walk among common seating areas, bars, coffee shops and stands.

Mike Morse, a board member at Downtown Topeka, Inc., which supports development in the city center, said the consumption areas could help revitalize that city's downtown or the North Topeka arts district.

"We want to create a vibrancy, and this is just another tool to help us get there," Morse said.

Wichita and Lawrence officials said they're not sure the districts would be feasible in some of the cities' larger commercial areas such as Massachusetts Street in Lawrence. Wichita strategic communications director Ken Evans said the city wouldn't support creating a consumption area in the large Old Town entertainment district. But he said Wichita might set up consumption areas in smaller neighborhood bar districts. Lawmakers who supported the bill said it's an economic development tool.

Democrat Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, said the bill would modernize Kansas' liquor laws and help Kansas communities compete with cities across state lines. Kansas, home to famed bar raider Carry Nation, has a history of tight liquor laws. Its Prohibition period lasted nearly 70 years, and voters didn't approve the sale of drinks in bars open to the general public until 1986. Kelly said the 1986 vote was monumental and changes since then have fine-tuned the state's laws.

Some lawmakers had public safety concerns. Parker Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson said she voted against the bill because she was afraid the consumption areas could yield more drunken drivers and be difficult for police to control.

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