The North Carolina General Assembly last year passed a law allowing counties and cities to create social quarters where patrons can legally consume alcoholic beverages in approved outdoor common areas. Since the passage of this bill in September 2021, the cities of Kannapolis, Asheville and Hickory have all created their own social districts. Cornelius passed a try that is only in effect for St. Patrick’s Day. Members of Salisbury City Council plan to vote on creating a social district next month which will come into effect on May 1 if approved. Rose Williams is the executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. She explains why she thinks this trend is spreading.
Rose Williams: I think it comes from the pandemic and the very hard blow that the pandemic has dealt to our downtowns, but particularly to our businesses in those downtowns. And so local leaders, legislators, business leaders are all looking for a way to cure this and help this.
Cities and towns in particular have invested heavily in their city centers. It is the heart of the city. And if this place is doing well, so is the city. And I think that motivated him – city leaders want to do it if it works well for their community. But I think that’s where it’s helped this downtown business district, this retail district that’s been hit so hard during the pandemic.
Gwendolyn Glenn: So, from what you see, most of them are located in downtown areas and historic areas within walking distance?
Williams: Exactly the pedestrian zone. And according to the legislation, it must be a demarcated area. The city must file a card with the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control)
commission, even of where it’s going to be, and then the city has to mark it with signs, make the signage very clear where that neighborhood is going to be. How big or big it will be – it’s all up to the local government if they choose to do so. But they will define it. I think in Salisbury they talk about a three block by three block area. And they all have signage.
And of course that takes an extra investment and then you have to have the bins because there has to be a particular type of cup that these drinks come in because it’s all about alcohol. That’s why this bill was so necessary, because the liquor rules have to be in place for this to work. So you may also need to have noise monitored to ensure that these areas will not be too noisy for the area, or at least that they are placed in areas where noise will not be an issue.
Glen: You talked about many benefits in terms of helping cities during the pandemic. What do you see – disadvantages?
Williams: The city will try to anticipate this when deciding whether to have this neighborhood or not. And then when they write it, they want to be careful not to put in an area maybe where they don’t want that noise or a part of their city that maybe wouldn’t be appropriate. And I think the good thing is that the city can be flexible. So if it doesn’t work, if it’s not a favorable thing, they can change that order and take it back. So I think they can take any concern and turn it into a positive.
Glen: Were you surprised to see this happening and that so many cities are taking notice and actually doing it? Because when you think of this area it’s still considered the Bible Belt and you have a lot of restrictions in terms of open container laws to prevent drinking in public areas. Why do you think this is happening now?
Williams: It’s something special going on and I think, you know, we’re not becoming downtown New Orleans at all. But again, I think it’s the pandemic, and I think it’s, as they say, “these unprecedented times” that we’re doing everything we can to inject energy and business into those downtowns and main streets of North Carolina. I was just in Washington, DC this weekend, and it’s very sad to see in such a big city, the number of restaurants that are carpeted, bars closed one after the other and still not reopened. So if they’re having a hard time in DC, you can imagine how it’s all over North Carolina.
Glen: I guess St. Patrick’s Day is a good time for a lot of them to start.
Williams: That’s right. It’s a good time for it to kick off, and I think these cities have already taken advantage of it. I’m sure we’ll see the use of it today. You see that in other areas, in other states. And so it’s something to watch and you have a model to follow. But it’s… It’s true, these towns have already adopted it. We’ll see how it goes today.
Glen: One thing I heard was that a person who lives in Hickory wasn’t very happy about that, and his reasoning was that you open up these social quarters so people can drink outside. But the state still hasn’t passed, for example, medical marijuana laws to help people who have many health problems. Have you heard comments comparing the two, like this person did in Hickory?
Williams: Yeah, that’s an interesting comparison, and there’s a big push for medical marijuana. I know it. It’s very interesting. I think it stemmed more from an economic development position, and that’s where it comes from. And so it’s a different chapter from the need. I think it’s a matter of economics.
Glen: And how do you see that playing out in the future? Where do you see it going?
Williams: I think again this will be another tool in the toolbox as cities work with their downtown development offices, their main street to decide how best to grow and change and expand what they do and to be flexible. And the more flexibility and authority the city has to do good things for its constituents, businesses and residents, the better. So I think it will be a good thing and I think it will stay.
Glen: Well, thank you very much for talking to us today.
Williams: Thank you very much for having me. And happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
Glen: Happy Saint Patty.