Thursday, May 23, 2024

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Social drinking district could spread to Mebane, where it would be a particularly bad idea, tarnish the atmosphere of downtown

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We recognize that we may be on the losing side, again, in warning about the downside, even dangers, attendant to the mass rush to adopt social drinking districts.

But we feel obligated to point them out nonetheless.

Burlington and Elon adopted their districts about a year ago.  Gibsonville adopted its version, a so-called “event-based” district earlier this month.  And now Mebane appears to be poised to join the drinking district parade.

Somehow, the historic attitude that beer, wine, and mixed alcoholic drinks should be consumed privately has given way to a misplaced exhibitionism that contends that people should be able to roam the streets with alcoholic beverages in hand.

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While we think the idea of fostering opportunities for public drinking is bad public policy and a poor moral choice, we seem to be a voice in the wilderness.

But we think the idea of having a weekend social drinking district in downtown Mebane is an especially bad idea.

The proposal being floated is to have a social drinking district between 11:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. (Which means Sunday drinking can start before church is out for most folks; historically there had been a deference to some modicum of respect for churches and church-going citizens in public policy, but not so much anymore.)

Most bars, thankfully, don’t currently open until the afternoon most days of the week – often 2:00, 3:00, even 5:00 and 6:00.  Why encourage such an earlier start to the drinking day?  The start time of 11:00 a.m. seems far too early, if there has to be one at all.

As it stands now, by the way, drinking will be allowed on the sidewalks during the Christmas Parade, Dogwood Festival, and other special events that currently occur on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.  The combination of large crowds, including many drinkers, seems to us a prescription for trouble.

By the way, the proposal on the table in Mebane was repeatedly described as “modelled” on Burlington’s social drinking district.  In fact, however, the Mebane proposal is much broader – doubling the number of days for public drinking.  Burlington’s district is active Friday and Saturday, from 12:00 noon to 10:00 p.m.  Mebane’s would include Thursdays and Sundays, as well.

The proposed hours for drinking in Mebane are also expanded; Burlington’s drinking hours start at noon; the proposal for Mebane is 11:00 a.m.

Elon has the most irresponsible approach of all local municipalities – allowing its drinking district to operate from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. seven days a week, and in a college town no less.

Of particular concern, Mebane has more bars than either Elon or Burlington.  Elon has five establishments that are “ABC permittees,” in the parlance of the social drinking district statute, and Burlington has seven.

So Mebane, which has 12, will have as many as both the other two municipalities, combined. And in what was accurately described as a “pretty compact district,” i.e., just three to four blocks long downtown.

And. . . how do we say this diplomatically. . . the caliber of some of Mebane’s establishments (especially its bars) are not, historically, as reputable as some others. The ratio of bars to restaurants, for instance, appears to be higher in Mebane than in either other local jurisdiction.

What we find especially ironic about Mebane’s proposal is that a city that has made such a promotion for its family-friendly downtown atmosphere is now willing to convert its downtown sidewalks to what amounts to an open bar for 11 hours each of four days of the week.

We hardly think it “perfectly charming” – to quote the city’s motto – to have imbibing all along Clay and Center streets in downtown.

We also find it ironic that the supposed justification for this social drinking district craze statewide is allegedly economic development. Indeed, that’s the justification that was used by Barbara Hollerand, executive director of the Downtown Mebane Development Corporation, who made the pitch to Mebane’s city council this week.  “It’s another tool for economic development,” she claimed.

What no one seems to have focused on is that there is absolutely no documented or discernible evidence of which we’re aware to substantiate that claim this sort of district drives up downtown business – not in Mebane, Elon, Burlington or anywhere else, as far as we know.

And don’t think for a moment that such a conversion in the “atmosphere” in downtown Mebane – from family- friendly plaza to a roving gallery of drinkers – won’t have repercussions for the downtown, and not the favorable kind Hollerand and other supporters portray.

We can easily imagine that families with children (especially small children) will increasingly decide to avoid the area, even more so as the hours for drinking go on.

We also don’t understand why taxpayers in Mebane should be expected to pay for the plastic cups for alcoholic beverages; in other jurisdictions, the bars and restaurants foot that tab.

One cost that was minimized this week was the district’s potential effect on law enforcement. According to the background materials presented to the city council, “The Police and Public Works departments would have some increased costs if the social district was approved, but the specific financial impacts are not known at this time. These costs would include additional police patrols and for Public Works, additional trash collection.”

Hollerand’s presentation included an assumption of “increased [police] patrols,” but Mebane city officials said they did not anticipate any increased staffing or expense.

All in all, we anticipate that retail businesses along Clay and Center streets – even those that have been bullied into silence about the forthcoming district – will shortly rue the day sidewalk drinking was allowed as it drives away their customers.

But more importantly, is this really what Mebane wants for its downtown?

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