First year of downtown DORA a success

First year of downtown DORA a success

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More than a year has passed since the Wooster City Council approved the creation of a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area. Despite some initial concerns about safety and additional trash, the word on the street is Wooster’s DORA has not led to increased problems in those areas. Instead, the DORA has resulted in positive outcomes for the community and downtown businesses.

“The whole reason that we created the DORA was to try to help our restaurants survive during COVID. It was something our community had suggested in previous years but never ran with it,” Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce President Samira Zimmerly said. “Mike Mariola from City Square Steakhouse had reached out to the chamber when restaurants were still at half capacity and brought it up again.”

In summer 2020 the chamber initiated a series of meetings with Wooster City administrators. They also issued a survey to collect feedback from the public. According to Zimmerly, the survey received almost a thousand responses with 96% in favor of creating the DORA.

The process was not easy, involving a 50-plus-page application completed by the chamber. The chamber also worked with downtown businesses to set the perimeter of the DORA and ensure retailers and restaurateurs understood how the DORA worked.

But when there’s a strongly motivated team, things move quickly. The DORA passed with unanimous approval by the Wooster City Council on Aug. 17, 2020. The DORA was officially launched on Sept. 11, 2020.

Mitch Flickinger, co-owner of Meatheads Union, shared about the positive experiences he’s seen over the past year of the DORA’s existence.

“As far as how it’s doing for us, it’s doing great. We’ve definitely seen an increase in people walking around town and enjoying the shops while they drink. I think every town should do a DORA. It’s been great for our community, especially during the pandemic,” Flickinger said.

The downtown farmers market was mentioned as an unexpected beneficiary by Shannon Waller, executive director of Main Street Wooster.

“One of the things that was special this summer during the farmers market was hearing the live music and seeing people with mimosas in their DORA cups,” Waller said.

Zimmerly highlighted the important role the DORA played during the period where there were still questions about whether groups could safely meet indoors due to the pandemic.

“During the time that it was still questionable to get groups together, having the DORA made it so we could meet outdoors. Groups like the Wooster Young Professionals and Wooster Rotary have also utilized the DORA for some of their programming,” she said.

Of course, there are bound to be challenges with any new local legislation, especially one involving 16 participating establishments with liquor licenses.

“I will say when you start anything new, there are always things you need to navigate,” Zimmerly said.

The process of creating branded signs and creating marketing materials took considerable effort. But oddly, the inventory management of the DORA cups has been the biggest nuisance.

“The cup-ordering process has been one thing that we’ve been trying to navigate through,” Zimmerly said. “Like if someone is getting wine in a DORA cup, that’s a smaller pour, so how many combinations of sizes do you want to get? We started with 12-ounce cups and got the feedback that we needed 16-ounce cups, so now we do both sizes.”

The chamber does the ordering of the cups and covers the cost up front, and restaurants order cups directly from the chamber as needed. The chamber only charges for the price of the cups. Zimmerly said there is an expense to the chamber, as the cash-flow management and planning takes staff time.

Yet all of that staff time was donated by the chamber to benefit the community. They have not charged a fee to downtown businesses for managing the process. “Knowing our restaurants were struggling and knowing it could help our other downtown retailers,” Zimmerly said, “it was quite a process, and it is something we are proud of — to help our community.”

Questions have arisen around if there have been other impacts on the community with respect to the cleanliness of downtown Wooster and in terms of safety. But over one year in, there have not been reports of increased trash or increased safety issues.

Waller said other communities such as Ashland have reached out to learn from Wooster’s experience with the DORA.

“I do like the competitive advantage that it gives Wooster that others don’t have,” Waller said. “But certainly it makes every community more successful, so if asked, I say that we’ve had positive experiences with it.”