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Ashland pub lobbies for piece of downtown park

Owners of Local 31 Pub would like to put some outdoor seating in Bluebird Park near the Plaza
Julia Stewart, right, and Sean Mark Nipper in downtown Ashland's Bluebird Park, which borders their business, Local 31 Pub. [Morgan Rothborne / Mail Tribune]

Ashland Parks and Recreation is considering turning over a portion of a small park just below the Plaza to a pub in order to give the local business a little more elbow room.

Local 31 Pub is new to the cadre of businesses in downtown Ashland, but in many ways the pub also is keeping with tradition. Since May 2021, Sean Mark Nipper and his business partner, Julia Stewart, have tried to recreate fond memories while establishing a reliable watering hole in downtown.

For generations the little building tucked behind the Plaza has been home to a series of pubs, Nipper explained with pride, pointing to an antique bar stool lashed to the wall near the ceiling, from when Rogue Ales, now based in Newport, got its start in the same space.

“I used to come here 20 years ago when it was Siskiyou Micro Pub; when the stage was over there, my band used to play here. This is the bar I grew up going to,” Nipper said.

“What I wanted to do in opening this place is kind of rekindle the memories that I had — and have the new generation have those same memories.”

Just before Nipper and Stewart took over the space, it was briefly a bar called Aqua, an experiment helmed by neighboring business Taj, Nipper said. COVID-19 restrictions made for a tight squeeze on all bars, and after a short time Taj was ready to give up the space again.

“Here’s kind of the unfortunate thing,” he said. “The building owner gave them (Taj) the big deck that’s always been synonymous with this location. So all we have is just what’s out here on the right-hand side.”

Local 31 Pub is now restricted to seven outdoor tables and a small indoor space. The owners see a solution in their backyard, Bluebird Park, a space owned by Parks and Recreation.

The space also causes them some problems, they said.

“You’ll get kind of harassed around here; there’s always trash around here,” Nipper said.

The owners said they have found people sleeping in an alcove under the stairs connecting the park to the surface streets of downtown. They have found sleeping bags, trash, human waste and even a cooking fire. They have fished sleeping bags and clothes — and even their signs — out of the creek several times.

If they had outdoor restaurant seating in the park, transients might be encouraged to sleep elsewhere, Stewart said.

Parks officials have been considering since July a proposal to let the pub use 100 square feet of Bluebird Park for outdoor seating, Rachel Dials, deputy director of Ashland Parks and Recreation, told parks commissioners at a Sept. 7 study session where the proposal was discussed.

Commissioner Jim Lewis voiced a concern about staff time. This is so small — serving only one business — would it be worth the staff time? Doesn’t it take a long time to get permits for serving alcohol? Lewis asked.

“It seems like a lot of effort for pretty minimal gain,” he said

“People go and eat their lunch, read a book, contemplate the creek — that’s really what it’s used for,” Commissioner Rick Landt said. “In this case, you’re actually taking a park, and you’re basically paving paradise in a sense.”

“It’s really a sweet spot, below street level, next to the creek; it has a lot of amenities that we allow now. Keep it informal rather than formalize it with tables and drinks,” Lewis said.

As the commissioners discussed the proposal, Parks and Recreation Business Manager Sean Sullivan asked APRC to let a member of the Zoom meeting audience speak. Landt allowed the unusual request, and Nipper made his case to the commissioners again.

“We would make a big effort to make that as beautiful as possible,” Nipper said.

He said the area is overgrown, struggling with a transient problem, and he has observed few enjoying the park as they had stated. It would be improved with the care of the restaurant, he said, not only for himself but other restaurants, and they would all benefit from increased foot traffic.

“We have a homeless problem all over the park system. It would be nice if we could deal with some of that in some way,” Lewis responded.

“I think there’s a value to having people in that area to minimize use of the area by homeless people,” said APRC member Julian Bell. “If it could be a mixed-use space, that would be a lot more palatable.”

“I still have a philosophical issue whether we want to convert parks to commercial use,” Commissioner Jim Bachman said.

Dials said she and other staff will visit the area and consider the proposal again, and the commissioners agreed to explore the proposal with more information in October.

Before any action is taken on the park, a sign will be posted in the area with an email address for public comment, Dials said in an email.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.