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Burlington city council formalizes policy to allow special district for outdoor drinking on Fridays and Saturdays


Burlington’s city council has given a hearty “bottoms up” to the creation of a new zone within Burlington’s downtown business district where the patrons of participating restaurants and bars will be able to go outdoors to enjoy their favorite alcoholic beverages.

The council formally enacted an ordinance to establish this so-called “social district” on Tuesday – clearing the way for the city’s downtown watering holes to obtain this new al fresco tippling privilege on behalf of their customers.

This unanimous decision makes Burlington the latest in a series of cities and towns across North Carolina that have set up these outdoor drinking districts since they were first authorized by the General Assembly.

Initially billed as a means to drum up business for restaurants and bars that were forced to close at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, these districts have since become a way for some municipalities to liven up key areas like their downtown development zones. Within the past year or so, more than 50 communities have taken advantage of the statute which permits the formation of these social districts – with those within Burlington’s orbit including Durham, Greensboro, and Elon.

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Under the applicable state statue, a city or town can mark off an area where businesses that are licensed to sell alcohol can allow their customers to carry their potent potables off site. The statute requires the seller to dispense the regulated beverage in a specially marked cup, which must then be consumed within an area that has been clearly delineated by municipal authorities.

The relevant statute gives local governments some leeway in how they may administer their new social districts once they’re established. The variables include the precise boundaries of the district, the times when outdoor drinking is permitted, and the types of beverages which may be consumed in the open.

In Elon, for instance, the town council has designated an area of about one city block where beer and wine may be consumed seven days a week between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Burlington’s city council has likewise decided to limit its new social district to alcohol and beer, although it has taken a different tack on the extent of its district – both in terms of geography and scheduling.

Under Burlington’s new ordinance, the outdoor consumption of alcohol is permitted only on Fridays and Saturdays between the hours of 12;00 noon and 10:00 p.m. Yet, the area subject to this ordinance is considerably larger than Elon’s one-block district – comprising some or all of seven blocks within the 16-block area that is designated as the city’s downtown development zone.

The text of the city’s new ordinance pays homage to the economic interests of this area as the very raison d’être for the social district’s formation The ordinance alludes, for example, to “the goal of encouraging foot traffic to downtown businesses,” and it predicts that “creating a social district on certain days and times will benefit our small business community, bring people into business districts, and generate increased tax revenues.”

Among the areas encompassed by Burlington’s new social district are the portions of East Davis, South Main, and East Front that are home to many retailers and restaurants – including a number of drinking establishments like the Public House and Burlington Beer Works. The district also contains the site of Burlington’s Paramount Theater and the headquarters of the nonprofit Impact Alamance. It nevertheless omits certain locations, such as the grounds of May Memorial Library, which were originally envisioned as part of the district when an early draft of its bounds were presented to the city council last month.

The impetus for the creation of this district comes, in no small part, from the Burlington Downtown Corporation – a city-sponsored nonprofit that serves to promote the city’s downtown development zone. Last month, Erin Nettles, the city’s downtown manager, presented the downtown corporation’s vision to Burlington’s elected leaders, who gave her the go-ahead to draw up a formal proposal that formed the basis for the ordinance adopted on Tuesday.

Among the provisions of the new ordinance are rules that specify which businesses may sell alcohol for off-site consumption as well as the locations their patrons may go with their drinks. Under the ordinance, businesses which aren’t permitted to sell alcohol can still opt to allow entry to people who have purchased beer or wine elsewhere. The ordinance also allows people who buy alcoholic beverages at special events to take those drinks into the bounds of the district.

This final provision is particularly crucial to one upcoming event that has apparently had a big impact on the timing of the city’s decision to create the new social district.

During her initial pitch to the city’s leaders in July, Nettles requested that the proposed district be in place before September 22, when Burlington’s recreation and parks department plans to hold a so-called “Phoenix Fourth Friday” festival in partnership with the Burlington Downtown Corporation and Elon University.

As the final installment in the rec department’s annual “Fourth Friday” concert series, this forthcoming street fair is expected to draw “upward of 3,000” visitors to downtown Burlington for an afternoon of music, cuisine – and beer, at least for those who are old enough to partake.

In order to facilitate the recreation department’s plans, the city council has agreed to close portions of Front and Main streets for the event. It has also, moreover, permitted a “beer garden” to operate within this same area on the afternoon of September 22.

The council ultimately approved these two concessions on Tuesday as part of a “consent agenda” of presumably routine or noncontroversial items that its members typically sign off on en bloc at the start of their regularly-scheduled meetings. Also adopted as part of Tuesday’s consent agenda was the ordinance for Burlington’s new social district – which like the rest of the items was accepted unanimously by the five-member council.

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