McHenry Council hears 1st proposal on open containers in downtown Riverwalk entertainment district

Council mixed on the idea, looks to shorten days, hours

McHenry's Green Street near the Riverwalk on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The city council heard a proposal on Monday that, if approved, would allow residents to walk from restaurants, bars and shops, and on the Riverwalk and in parks, with open containers of alcohol.

A proposal that would allow adults to dine or just hang out in downtown McHenry on nice nights with a drink in hand was tweaked by the City Council on Monday night, but is advancing.

Via a head count, six of the eight McHenry City Council members said they were in favor of the city looking into creating a dining and entertainment district in portions of downtown – but with shorter hours and fewer days than in the original proposal.

“I think it is a conversation we need to have in support of a new district (with) ample opportunity to continue to grow their businesses,” said 7th Ward Alderwoman Sue Miller, voicing her support.

Parks and Recreation Director Bill Hobson and Police Chief John Birk outlined the idea Monday night for the council.

It is an idea that grew out of ShamROCKS the Fox, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Open containers are allowed during the weekend event that includes dyeing the Fox River green, live music and beer tents in Miller Point Park, Hobson said. It is also the busiest day of the year for McHenry restaurants, he said.

What an ordinance would look like depends entirely on the City Council, Hobson said, adding he wanted to make sure the idea had support before sitting down with the 17 or so restaurant and bar owners in the proposed district.

It is something different to try in our community. Businesses are in support of it.”

—  McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett

“The parameters are to have an informed discussion with the City Council” on whether it is something they want to pursue, Hobson said.

In the initial proposal, Hobson and Birk suggested the open container ordinance could run from noon to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

They made the proposal with a wide time frame, understanding the council may prefer to trim that back, Birk said. “If the hours need to be something different, that is what we would like to do for you.”

If the program did not work during the first, one-year pilot program, the council could change days, hours, or remove streets from it, Birk said.

Not all of the council was for the idea.

“I don’t like the whole idea,” said 6th Ward Alderman Michael Koch. “Do you really want people walking in with open beer and wine in these shops, spilling it?”

Chris Bassi, 4th Ward alderwoman, also said she was uncomfortable with open alcohol containers and the hours suggested. “It takes away the family environment the Riverwalk is trying to create.”

Shops could opt out of the program, Hobson said, but adding no one at the city has had sit-down conversations with business owners yet as the council had not seen a proposal.

Mayor Wayne Jett did not include his vote on whether or not to go forward with crafting an ordinance. He did say he’s gotten nothing but positive feedback from business owners. “It is something different to try in our community. Businesses are in support of it,” Jett said.

Jett said that he no longer has personal business interest in any downtown restaurants or venues, but said his wife, Amber, does have interest in The Vixen.

By the end of the discussion, council members indicated they would be more comfortable with limiting days and hours to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. For now, the proposal would allow open containers on the Riverwalk, Miller Point Park and Weber’s Park, and on sidewalks on Riverside Drive from Weber’s Park to Miller Point Park, Park Street from Route 120 to Pearl Street, Pearl Street from Riverside Drive to Green Street, and Green Street from Pearl Street to Waukegan Road.

The current proposal also includes Main Street from Route 31 to the railroad tracks.

As it is separated from the rest of downtown, Main Street often unintentionally gets left out of city events, Jett said, adding businesses there might not want to be a part of it.

“If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for them, but they are included in the opportunity. I would hate to not allow them the same opportunity as anyone else,” Jett said.

Now that he has a better idea of what the council wants, Hobson said he will set up discussions with business owners to get their feedback. A tweaked proposal would then come back to council for further discussion before an ordinance is drafted, he said.

“This is why we are talking in October 2023 for something that would not start until May 2024,” Hobson said.