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Burlington’s city council hears pitch for downtown social drinking district

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Burlington’s elected leaders have been asked to pop the tab on a new downtown district where people could walk about freely with alcoholic beverages they’ve ordered from this area’s licensed watering holes.

Erin Nettles, the city’s downtown manger, formally approached Burlington’s city council on Monday with a request to establish this so-called “social district” within the city’s downtown development zone. She noted that, under her proffered proposal, the patrons of bars, restaurants, and other drinking establishments would be able take their alcoholic beverages off-premises as long as they remain within a clearly marked zone for their consumption.

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Erin Nettles

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Nettles told the council that the impetus for this particular plan had come from the Burlington Downtown Corporation – a city sponsored nonprofit that provides various services within a 16-block area in the center of town. She nevertheless added that, in its broad strokes, this proposed venture would resemble dozens of other districts that have already taken root across North Carolina.

“Even though it started as a small-town type of development, it’s now seen in cities of all sizes,” Nettles explained during a city council work session that evening. “Over 50 cities have already jumped on board in North Carolina…and Elon, Durham, and Greensboro are the closest to us.”

It was less than a year ago, in fact, that Elon’s town council signed off on its own social district in order to continue an outdoor drinking promotion that it had first launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nettles explained that the legal authority for all such initiatives harks back to a pandemic-era venture that the N.C. General Assembly first implemented to help restaurants and bars recover from the state-mandated closures and heightened occupancy limits that Covid-19 had inspired. She said that the General Assembly has since revised its original rules to allow the creation of specialized districts like the one she envisions for Burlington.

The city’s downtown manager added that the establishment of this specialized zone would, by no means, be carte blanche for the public consumption of alcohol.

“Pretty much if a restaurant or a bar that’s allowed to sell alcoholic drinks opts in, you can get it in a special cup and walk around with it in a designated area with that beverage,” she went on to elaborate. “The districts must be clearly defined…and the beverages cannot leave that defined district…You have to buy them from a restaurant or bar that’s participating in the district…So there’s no convenience stores, no brown bagging it, and no bringing it from home to refill your cup on your own.”

Nettles stressed that there are even fairly strict guidelines for the containers that restaurants and bars must issue to patrons who want to nurse their drinks on the move. Among other things, these clear, plastic cups may have a capacity of no more than 16 ounces. They must also bear the social district’s logo on the exterior, along with the name of the business that dispensed the alcohol, the date and time of the purchase, and a disclaimer to “drink responsibly – be 21.”

Suffice it to say, the implementation of the new district could come with a bit of a regulatory hangover for Burlington’s city officials. Nettles conceded that the initiative would require the city’s police force to increase its foot patrols in the downtown area, and it would give the solid waste division more refuse containers to empty of trash and recyclables. She also acknowledged that the city would have to spend about $5,000 on signage and other upfront expenses, and she advised the council to keep tabs on things like foot traffic, revenue that downtown retailers reap, and incidents that demand police intervention.

Even so, Nettles insisted that, based on her own inquiries, the social district model has proven quite popular in the communities where it has been implemented. She added that it has even found favor with local law enforcement – as Burlington’s police department apparently discovered after the downtown manager first broached her idea to the agency’s top brass.

“At first, they were a little cautious,” Nettles acknowledged of the police department’s administrators. “But after we talked through it, they reached out to four cities that had a similar makeup to Burlington…and they reported negligible impact on crime and calls for service.”

Nettles went on to lay out some recommendations for the creation of new social district in Burlington. She suggested, for instance, a schedule for the new district that would limit outdoor tippling to the hours between 12:00 noon and 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. (Elon, by contrast, has a social district that’s active seven days a week from the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.) She also recommended borders for the proposed zone that would take in portions of seven city blocks within an area bounded by Webb and Maple avenues to the north and south; and by Lexington Avenue and Worth Street along the east-west axis.

Nettles said that she is recommending this area based on its high concentration of restaurants and bars, outdoor hangouts like the city’s historic depot, and potential sites for retail businesses to expand. She nevertheless stressed that each business within this area would have the choice to either opt in or out of the initiative – which, in the latter case, would allow them to bar access to people who show up nursing their potent potables. She added that businesses licensed to sell alcohol would, likewise, have an opportunity to bow out if they would prefer not to have patrons take their beverages off site.

Nettles told the council that that the downtown corporation has already begun to visit businesses within the proposed district in order to promote the initiative. She added, however, that before the corporation can actually pull the trigger on this proposal, it would need the council to sign off on an ordinance that spells out the parameters for the new district.

Nettles encouraged the council to act on her recommendation in August so that the downtown corporation can get a jump on this venture before the weather turns later this year.

“I would love for us to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Fridays’ this year,” she added in reference to one of the periodic events that the corporation sponsors each summer. “That was kind of the original intent – to do it while there was still warm weather outside and while people would want to walk around with a beverage.

 

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