Elon’s town council has yet to break out the bubbly to christen a new downtown zone where visitors will be allowed to drink beer and wine in an open-air setting.
But the plan for this so-called “social district” nevertheless drew plenty of enthusiasm on Tuesday when the council held a state-mandated public hearing about the idea.
Modeled on similar setups in cities like Raleigh and Greensboro, Elon’s proposed district would more or less comprise a single block of the downtown area that’s hemmed in by North Williamson, West Lebanon, North Holt, and West College avenues.
[Story continues below map of the proposed “social district.”]
Within this patch of turf, patrons of local restaurants and bars would be able to nurse a beer or sip some wine while strolling along sidewalks or lazing on park benches. They would not be permitted, however, to carry their open containers outside the district or bring them into parking lots and other restricted areas within the district itself.
Before Tuesday’s hearing, Jill Weston, the town’s downtown development director, reminded the council that a similar policy for alfresco alcohol consumption had previously been in effect during the coronavirus pandemic. Although the pandemic-era provisions ended on August 15, Weston added that the plan on the table that night could bring back this practice in a limited form.
“In order for alcohol to continue in these areas, we need to create a social district,” she said, “and this would allow for open containers purchased within the district to be taken out on the sidewalk within the district area.”
Under the proposal before the council, the town’s social district would be clearly demarcated with signs, and businesses within the district would be able to opt out of the initiative if they prefer not to have drinking on premises. Moreover, people who avail themselves of the policy would have to carry their drinks in specially marked cups, and trashcans for the disposal of these drinking vessels would be set up along the district’s borders. The proposal also includes a schedule that would permit outdoor drinking seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m.
The proposed creation of this tippling territory elicited some words of concern from an off-duty police officer who was the only member of the public to take part in the council’s public hearing on Tuesday.
Police sergeant Ed Peters reminded the council that alcohol violations are already quite common in Elon’s downtown area – a fact that he said was corroborated by the results of a recent enforcement campaign by his department.
“In a matter of four hours, we wrote almost 50 citations for underage [drinking] and open containers,” Peters recall. “I’m for the expansion and doing things, but I’m also for safety, too, and I think the more that you open it up, the more problems you create.”
Peters went on to admonish the council not to expand the proposed district too far beyond the drinking establishments where the beer and wine would be purchased.
The prospect of underage drinking also raised some misgivings for councilmember Stephanie Bourland, who asked Weston if any data exists on the effect that social districts have had on this scourge in other communities. Weston conceded that the practice is too new to have produced any reliable figures. She speculated, however, that the district’s proposed regulations may actually serve to discourage alcohol consumption by minors.
An increase in underage drinking also seemed rather unlikely to councilman Quinn Ray, who argued that college students and other young people don’t tend to frequent the upscale drinking and dining establishments within the proposed district’s bounds.
“Most of them wouldn’t buy a $7 craft beer,” Ray insisted. “So, I don’t think the social district is going to cause more college students to be drunk in public than there already are.”
The district’s potential borders also raised some issues for members of the town council.
Bourland, for one, raised some objections to a proposed bulge in the boundary that’s intended to take in a stretch of sidewalk which runs south of West Lebanon Avenue. Weston noted that this southerly promontory is motivated by the absence of sidewalk on the north side of this section of West Lebanon. Even so, Bourland was fearful that the proposed layout of the boundary would encourage people to dash into traffic to get to the other side of the street.
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There were no similar objections to another potential extension of the district to the north side of West College Avenue. This prospective appendage would take in a picnicking area on the grounds of Elon Community Church. Weston acknowledge that the church has yet to give its formal blessing to this area’s inclusion in the proposed district. Even so, the idea posed no crisis of conscience for the church’s pastor, Randy Orwig, who is also a member of Elon’s town council.
Orwig pointed out that the church’s picnicking area was previously included in the area where the town had permitted outdoor drinking under its erstwhile pandemic-era initiative. He added that he sees no reason to exclude it from the proposed social district based on his experience with the earlier policy.
“I want to get back to the idea that this is not new,” the minister went on to say of the current proposal. “I’m very supportive of this because I think that people like having these options…We’re actually helping to create a sort of moderation station – a really social district.”
Orwig’s endorsement drew an “amen” from other members of the town council.
Councilman Monti Allison asserted that the creation of a safe space for drinking could reduce some of the risky behavior associated with alcohol, while mayor pro tem Mark Greene argued that the town many be able to limit any negative externalities with an educational campaign to encourage responsible drinking.
Meanwhile, councilman Ray told his colleagues that he sees no reason to deprive the proposed district’s bars and restaurants of the advantage they had under the old, pandemic-era rules.
“If this is the only way for our businesses to enjoy what they have been doing,” he added, “then I’m in favor of it.”
In the end, the council opted not to vote on the district after it concluded the public hearing on Tuesday. Its members, instead, instructed Weston to refine her map of the proposed zone to highlight parking lots and other excluded areas.
Read the newspaper’s editorial page views on the proposed “social district”: https://alamancenews.com/elons-drinking-district/