For the first time in more than 120 years, North Carolina has updated its alcohol laws. Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 into law last month, a measure that allows cities and counties to create social districts where people are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages sold by participating businesses in designated outdoor areas.
Wilmington leaders and business owners are hoping to establish their own social district in the downtown central business district (CBD) sooner rather than later in hopes of boosting businesses hit hard by the pandemic.
The CBD is the area from the Cape Fear River to Third Street Street and north to south from Red Cross to Ann streets in downtown Wilmington.
“The social district would be a safe area for people to stroll and see people with very strict guidelines to protect staff and guests,” said Terry Espy, president of Downtown Business Alliance. “It’s a valuable opportunity to expand out to the sidewalk and make it more pedestrian friendly. It would be one element to make it have more of a European feel – make it less about cars and more a pleasing place for everyone.”
Espy pointed to the success of the Downtown Alive initiative that expanded seating outdoors for businesses last year.
“It’s funny to look back a year ago with Downtown Alive and how business owners realized that they were making numbers close to what they did the year prior,” Espy said. “It will take a long, long time before people are comfortable being crowded shoulder to shoulder in small spaces. As the evolution to our new normal takes hold, this will give the public the ability to be outside and enjoy what downtown has to offer.”
Businesses and city officials are in support of the district, particularly with its ability to allow people to gather outside in a safe manner.
“Now that we are past the high season, Wilmington officials understand the implications, the positives and the negatives, so the research and data gathering can take place in order to be ready for the spring season,” said Holly Childs, president and CEO of Wilmington Downtown Inc.
One form of research that is taking place in the interim is looking at benchmark cities.
Espy recommends that instead of “reinventing the wheel, look at how other municipalities have done it successfully, and tweak it to suit Wilmington.”
Childs said, “Savannah is a great example to relate to as they have some regulations that we could look to as their social district is only in their historic district.”
Those details include a number of rules that must be followed to adhere to state and local guidelines.
According to the law, the district must be defined with signage to mark the area, as well as the days and times that alcohol can be consumed within that area. City and county websites must post management and maintenance plans, including a rendering of the district boundaries.
No bottles or flasks are allowed within the district. Drink containers must clearly identify the establishment where the beverage was purchased, including a logo or mark unique to the social district. Each beverage container must not hold more than 16 ounces and include a statement that reads “Drink Responsibly – Be 21.”
Both Espy and Childs recommend a pilot program.
“In order to dip our toes in the water, we’re hoping to pilot the program in a small area, in a smaller key area, a manageable contiguous area,” Childs explained. “We do not want to carry congestion in front of non-alcoholic-serving businesses.”
Initially, there was talk of piloting it on the Riverwalk, but with few bars along the Riverwalk, leaders feel it makes more sense to pilot the social district elsewhere in the central business district.
“The majority of people walk around the CBD, so creating a social district in the center of that may provide the needed boost to restaurants and bars, as well as other retail outlets,” Espy said.
Many visitors from cities across the country assume social districts are the norm, as they are in cities such as Huntsville, Alabama, and in more than 40 downtown areas in Michigan.
“More feet on the street is better for retail. It will get people down here in a positive, upbeat environment. Retailers got to get people in the door,” Espy added.
According to Childs and Espy, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo wants to make sure that all city service officials see eye to eye on the concept and feel comfortable with the logistics of a social district and their subsequent challenges. The mayor was not available for comment on the social district idea as of press time.
One issue is additional trash in the social district.
Trash is always a concern and has “been a bit overwhelming” since the Live Oak Bank Pavilion opened, Childs said. The pavilion is located in Riverfront Park and welcomes thousands of spectators to concerts and shows each weekend.
Childs said she is confident city sanitation and the downtown Municipal Services District’s Ambassadors will be able to lead the charge to keep a social district clean. Espy agreed.
“It is just a way of life. We have wonderful organizers and an incredible riverkeeper, as well as downtown business owners who are proud of our downtown and the Riverwalk and are protective of it. We also have a wonderful ambassador program, which has evolved in ensuring the cleanliness of the downtown area,” Espy said.
It will take a team of business owners and city officials to make this successful, Espy and Childs said.
“With COVID, it gives people another option without investing in infrastructure, to reach bigger audiences without the need for additional staff or space to serve them,” Childs said.
Both Childs and Espy said they anticipate it will take a great deal of discussion among city leaders to make a social district a reality in downtown Wilmington, but feel that that new law could mark the start of a shift in the downtown business and hospitality scene.