Morgantown a wallflower at the PODA party

MORGANTOWN — You could forgive Morgantown City Councilor Danielle Trumble for being just a little bit envious. 

After all, it was Trumble who spent the better part of two years working with city legal counsel, Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia, and, later, Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion, to get the state’s PODA bill signed into law. 

PODA stands for Private Outdoor Designated Areas. Some states call them DORA (Designated Outdoor Recreation Area); others call them social districts. 

Regardless of what they’re called, the oversimplified gist is cities can get permission from the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration to create districts in which customers can get alcoholic beverages to go from participating businesses.   

Early returns indicate it’s a success. 

In June, Huntington became the first city to create a PODA. In less than six months, Huntington City Council has already voted to expand not only the size of the district, but the months in which it’s active. 

Recent media reports out of Charleston include rave reviews from business owners in the state’s capital, with one business claiming to have sold 800 drinks during a single event. 

But none of that is happening in Morgantown. 

Trumble said provisions put in the law by the ABCA are scaring off, or flat-out excluding, local businesses. 

City Attorney Ryan Simonton explained. 

“There’s a provision in the law that makes every participating establishment jointly and severally liable for any violation. So, potentially, if someone just walks down the street where one of these PODAs is established and opens a can of beer, and they’re drinking underage, ABCA could come and enforce a violation against any bar or restaurant that’s agreed to participate. Maybe they wouldn’t do that, but that’s a real concern for people who operate bars and restaurants as their livelihood,” Simonton said.  

Further, the law mandates only businesses with a liquor license can participate. Because of the peculiarities in how liquor licenses are allowed downtown, that means primarily college-oriented bars. 

When city leaders made a move to clean up Sunnyside in the 1990s, it essentially forced all the college bars into the city’s downtown. Fearing the city center would be overrun with booze-fueled dance clubs, rules were then implemented that said the only way to get a liquor license downtown going forward would be if 60% of your sales came from food. 

“So now, you have popular businesses like [Apothecary Ale House] and [Deckers Creek Yacht Club] that are not able to get a full liquor license because they can’t prove 60% of their sales come from food,” Trumble said. 

And if they don’t have a liquor license, they can’t participate in a PODA. 

Trumble said she’s pushing for changes to city code, but concedes it’ll probably be faster to push for updates to the PODA law in the upcoming legislative session. 

Asked how cities like Huntington are getting around these issues, Trumble said one major difference is Huntington’s college bars are largely separate from the city’s downtown district. 

“I’ve spoken with Mayor [Stephen] Williams several times and he’s told me they have the same concerns. He basically said, ‘We’re moving forward, and they’ll just have to yell at us.’ Whereas, in Morgantown, we’re trying to take care of these things proactively, so no one is getting in trouble,” Trumble said. 

“Other cities are definitely taking advantage and noticing the effects. I worked two years on this. I’m glad someone is taking advantage of it.”