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Elon council enlarges downtown ‘social district’ amid boasts it has uncorked new local trend

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There were no clinking glasses or celebratory sips of champagne in Elon’s municipal building this week as the town marked the first full year since it inaugurated a special zone for the public, outdoor consumption of alcohol.

But there was certainly a sense of well being among the town’s leaders on Tuesday as they seized on this milestone to bring a small, publicly-owned parcel off of Holt Avenue within the bounds of this so-called “social district.”

Elon’s town council ultimately voted 5-to-0 to extend the district’s limits to encompass this grassy knoll, which had previously been home to a “beer garden” that the town had briefly allowed a Gibsonville-based brewer to operate.

The council had previously decided not to allow this brewer nor any of his competitors to maintain this outdoor saloon as a permanent institution. Yet, its members did express interest in bringing the former site of the beer garden into the social district so that patrons of other drinking establishments could enjoy their favorite brews within this tiny municipal park.

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Although the council’s decision hasn’t added any more bars or bistros to the town’s social district, it has, in a sense, been a vote of confidence in the success of this year-old endeavor – a point ultimately enunciated by councilman Randy Orwig prior to Tuesday’s unanimous decision.

“I think we’ve provided plenty of opportunities for people can enjoy food and that open cup,” Orwig told the rest of the council that night. “And [Elon’s police] chief [Kelly] Blackwelder has said there have been no problems. So, I think we’re doing the right thing.”

Tuesday’s adjustment to the social district was actually the second such change since this initiative was formally launched in March of 2023 to let the patrons of downtown drinking establishments carry their potent potables off-premises.

This policy, which took its inspiration from similar ventures in other parts of the state, was originally authorized by the council in the fall of 2022 to build on the success of pandemic-era initiatives that had encouraged alfresco drinking and dining. The district itself went live the following spring after a six month build up on the part of the town.

Since its formation, the core of Elon’s social district has been limited to a fairly small area along North Williamson and South Lebanon avenues that’s home to a disproportionate number of Elon’s drinking establishments.

Under the rules that the council laid out in 2022, these watering holes can dispense beer, wine, or mixed drinks in specially-marked cups that are intended for off-premises consumption. Customers may take these cups outside during particular hours set by the council, provided that they remain within the confines of the district. They can even tote the drinks into businesses that don’t serve alcohol as long as the owners of these businesses have given their clearance.

The privilege to dispense drinks in these special cups is currently limited to five restaurants and bars that are situated within the social district’s original boundaries. This tally has remained unchanged since the district’s establishment, although the district’s perimeter has seen some minor adjustments since its formation.

Prior to Tuesday’s expansion, the council agreed to adjust the district’s limits to include a small, tree- shaded area on the grounds of Elon Community Church that had become a popular gathering place for church members and nonmembers alike.

The district’s most recent expansion centers on the Holt Avenue parklet – a once overlooked piece of public real estate that the town decided to spruce up last fall to accommodate the aforementioned beer garden.

Jill Weston, Elon’s downtown development director, informed the council that the main reason for including this parcel within the town’s social district is to encourage residents to take full advantage of this publicly-owned asset. Weston added that this move would also allow brewers to temporarily resurrect the now-defunct beer garden during street festivals and other events.

“This would allow us to do that without getting a special event permit,” she added, “or a social district expansion for every event.”

In addition to the parklet itself, the council has also agreed to include several stretches of sidewalk within the town’s social district to create a continuous connection between the rest of this zone and the town’s grassy knoll.

Yet, at the end of the day, this tweak to Elon’s social district provided the town’s administrators with a golden opportunity to plug the apparent success of their year-long experiment with outdoor tippling.

Weston, for one, was quite keen to play up this theme when she presented the proposed expansion to the council. Nor was the opportunity lost on Elon’s manager Richard Roedner, who suggested that the town may have set an example for other communities when it hazarded to set up the district a year ago.

“Because we were so bold in taking that step,” Roedner added. “Burlington now has one. Mebane is considering one, and Gibsonville is considering one.”

“It feels good to be the first,” Weston went on to opine.

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