Sunday, December 10, 2023

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Graham, NC 27253
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Elon council OKs plan to set up beer garden on municipal property

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Elon’s town council has approved a proposal that will enable the town to cultivate a new beer garden within a special downtown district where the outdoor consumption of alcohol is already permitted.

During a regular meeting on Monday, the council voted to temporarily extend the bounds of this so-called “social district” to include some publicly-owned land along Holt Avenue where a Gibsonville-based microbrewer has proposed to set up an alfresco bar in partnership with the town.

Under this proposed arrangement, Praveen Karandikar of the Toasty Kettlyst would have the town’s blessing to retail his home-brewed beverages on this otherwise idle lot for a two month trial period that’s slated to run from October 14 through December 17. During this time, the beer garden would operate under the same terms as all of the social district’s other watering holes – albeit on a reduced schedule of four days a week rather than the seven days available to neighboring establishments. (The beer garden’s schedule calls for operations on Thursday and Friday from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; on Saturday from 12:00 noon to 10:00 p.m.; and on Sunday from 12:00 noon to 8:00 p.m.)

In addition to bringing the beer garden’s proposed site into the social district, the council also agreed to incorporate other areas along North Holt and West College avenues.

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These additions mark only the second set of changes that the council has made to the district since it was established a year ago in order to continue an outdoor drinking promotion that had helped area businesses rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. A previous tweak, which the council accepted last month, had brought in a small tree-covered knoll on the grounds of Elon Community Church into the bounds of the district.

The council ultimately approved the social district’s latest expansion, with all of its implications for Karandikar’s beer garden, at the behest of Jill Weston, the town’s downtown development director.

Weston noted that the town’s prospective bargain with Karandikar would enable the Toasty Kettlyst to join the handful of restaurants and pubs that presently populate the town’s social district. Like each of these other establishments, the beer garden would have to serve alcoholic drinks in specially-marked cups that must be disposed at the edge of the district. It would also subject the beer garden to additional restrictions due to its open-air setting as well as its location on land owned by the municipality.

Weston nevertheless assured the council that this new enterprise would add a distinctive touch to its proposed site – a small, largely vacant plot of public land that the town’s staff members internally refer to as “Holt Park.”

“Currently, there are three picnic tables on the property that don’t get used a whole lot and there is a fence structure out there,” the town’s downtown developer went on to explain. “It’s a nice little setting. It just needs something to entice people.”

Weston added that, as part of the town’s deal with the brewery, Elon would have to provide the beer garden with electrical power and set up portable toilets for its patrons to use. She estimated that the town may find itself on the hook as much as $4,000 to cover these costs, including $3,000 that she said may be needed to run power out to the site.

Weston added that, in exchange of this startup capital, the town would receive a 5 percent cut of the beer garden’s total receipts – a share that may be adjusted if the venture continues after the trial.

Before the council voted on the social district’s expansion, it held a cursory public hearing that drew nary a peep from anyone in the audience. Mayor Emily Sharpe nevertheless notified the council that the town had received one email from a Mr. Ralph Harwood, who had questioned the “economics” of the proposed beer garden, its proposed “target market,” and the criteria for its success.

Sharpe was quick to address Harwood’s inquiry about the beer garden’s intended patrons, emphasizing that this enterprise wouldn’t be aimed at the underage students who attend Elon University. The mayor added that college kids aren’t even those whom she routinely sees frequenting the social district’s existing establishments. “There’s hardly ever students there,” she said. “It’s local people of all ages.”

Sharpe’s assurances on this point were echoed by other members of the town council. Its members nevertheless shared some of the other concerns that had appeared in Harwood’s email.

One oft-mentioned head-scratcher for the town’s leaders was the precise rubric that the town would use to evaluate the beer garden’s success after the trial period had ended.

Weston, for her part, was unable to offer any hard criteria to gauge the town’s partnership with Karandikar.

“Success is hard to measure,” she admitted. “Our expectations are to attract some people to the site who would not go over there because there’s nothing over there now.”

Weston went on to suggest some rather slippery considerations that the town may want to use – such as the size of the crowds it brings to “Holt Park,” the satisfaction of the beer garden’s patrons, and the problems that it presents for the town’s police force.  This final consideration also drew a few words from Elon’s police chief Kelly Blackwelder, who conceded that the town’s social district has, so far, presented no trouble at all for her or her officers – with “zero issues, zero calls, zero citations,” since its creation.

“We had a number of citations in the general downtown area,” Blackwelder added, “but we had none in the social district or as a result of the social district.”

The council’s members also raised other concerns that were harder for the town’s staff members to address. Councilman Randy Orwig, for one, observed the potential disadvantage of having the trial period take place so late in the year, while Quinn Ray shared his unease about having portable toilets serving as a round-the-clock fixture to accommodate the beer garden’s patrons.

Meanwhile, several members of the council found it a bit hard to swallow the town’s proposed financial contribution to the new beer garden. For councilman Monti Allison, the size of this potential investment which Weston had quoted seemed a tad steep when compared to the 5 percent of Karandiark’s gross proceeds that it would get in return.

“So, for us to break even,” he said after some rough calculations, “he would have to have $80,000 in sales during that time?”

In the end, the council agreed to go along with the downtown director’s proposal. Yet, there was a moment, shortly before their unanimous vote, when the town’s leaders seemed like they had lost their stomach for the proposed venture.

In fact, the town’s mayor was initially unable to get anyone on the council to offer a motion in favor of the social district’s expansion. Then, just when it seemed like this project was doomed to whither right there on the vine, Orwig hazarded the necessary motion, which was seconded by Stephanie Bourland before it passed in a 4-0 vote.

Absent from the meeting was mayor pro tem Mark Greene.

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