Leonardo Williams was pleasantly surprised one evening when, while vacationing in Savannah, a bartender let him know that he could enjoy his drink outdoors. Sipping leisurely as he browsed through the Historic District’s array of shops, the Durham city councilman was struck with an idea.
“I thought it would be, you know, just something cool to have in Durham,” Williams said. “I think it’ll be appropriate with our local culture here.”
In social districts like the one in Savannah, Georgia, people can consume alcohol outdoors and on city streets within defined boundaries. After Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 last September, these districts are now coming to North Carolina. Supporters say social districts bolster local economies, drawing customers to breweries and other businesses that rely upon foot traffic.
They’ve already popped up in Greensboro and Kannapolis. And on July 5, the Raleigh City Council approved a pilot social district along Fayetteville Street, which is expected to kick off August 15. Now, Durham may be next.
“I’m sure many of you can’t wait for this to happen in Durham,” Williams tweeted on July 6 in response to the news about Raleigh. “I’m with you and good news, it’s hopefully coming soon. We provided this as a legislative ask and are now in the process of making it policy for Durham.”
Downtown Durham, Inc., a nonprofit working toward downtown revitalization, is leading his initiative. DDI leaders recently visited the Downtown Greensboro social district with city officials, where they gained valuable insight. For instance, Greensboro authorities report that litter has not been an issue as feared. DDI also collected ideas for graphics and signage, which would identify participating businesses and the boundaries of the district.
DDI President and CEO Nicole Thompson hopes to see Durham’s social district cover most of downtown. The current proposed map draws borders at Foster Street to the north and Highway 147 to the south. The district’s eastern and western edges would lie along Wall Street and S. Buchanan Blvd., respectively.
“Our restaurants are spread out through that entire district, so [we’re] not wanting to prohibit or limit businesses being able to take advantage of this,” she said. Thompson added that hours would likely follow Raleigh’s model, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m daily.
In addition to requiring cities to set aside specific hours for social districts, House Bill 890 mandates clearly labeled cups and imposes drink size limitations. Patrons may not bring their own drinks into the district.
DDI has reached out to local business owners to better understand their feelings and concerns. A March 2022 survey of 93 business owners revealed that nearly 80% endorsed a downtown social district. In a second survey that went out to the public, responses were similarly enthusiastic. Of the 671 individuals surveyed who live, shop and/or work downtown, 94% said that a social district would be “a good idea for downtown Durham.”
Durham business owners, many of whom struggled during the pandemic, welcome a social district, Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery.
“The damage and destruction that happened in the previous two years, it’s going to take five or more years to try to recover from,” said Gross, who also owns Pompieri Pizza. “I think it’s absolutely critical to helping our downtown.”
Chris Creech, who co-owns The Glass Jug Beer Lab with his wife Katy, was also excited about a social district. It could help brewery businesses like his own, he said, and encourage people to enjoy the scenery the city has to offer.
For example, The Glass Jug sits just across the street from Durham Central Park. “Folks could buy beer from our taproom and walk out into the park and have the beer with a picnic or doing whatever they want to do in the park,” he said. “Eating, drinking, playing games.”
The benefits may extend even to businesses that don’t sell alcohol.
“Maybe people grab a drink at one of the lovely establishments next door and then come and mosey on to us,” said Megan Cain, owner of The ZEN Succulent, a plant and gift store with locations in both Raleigh and Durham. Both she and Creech hope to see the city install recycling bins and educate the public about this proposal.
Some business owners fret that social districts would make downtown unsafe for kids and families, the survey found. They worry that relaxed alcohol policies could increase bad behavior and place an additional burden on police.
“I really think it’s going to be essential for when this rolls out that we have plenty of great messaging,” Cain said. “But also plenty of great signs downtown, letting people know where the district starts, where it ends, so that we’re not having a strain on our already strained law enforcement.”
Thompson doesn’t expect downtown Durham to morph into the next Bourbon Street. “This is not going to be Mardi Gras,” she chuckled, emphasizing that existing alcohol laws will remain in place.
“I want to be very clear that the social district does not supersede ABC laws. It’s just allowing you to carry an open container,” she said. “So I don’t foresee the ability to carry an open container changing downtown, overnight, to a rowdy experience.”
City staff plan to present a proposal to the city council at a meeting in August. If it is approved, Thompson thinks the Bull City could launch a social district as soon as fall.
The pandemic might have dealt a heavy blow to the city’s nightlife. But by Labor Day, the plaza of American Tobacco campus could teem with people relaxing with their drinks. Checkered picnic blankets could break up the brilliant green of Durham Central Park.
“I do think that it’ll create more of a vibrant culture,” Williams said. He added, “I think it’s going to draw people from all over to come to Durham.”
Above: A proposed social district would allow people to walk around with open containers of alcohol in downtown Durham. The envisioned area would encompass the American Tobacco Campus. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal.