Raleigh leaders are looking for new ways to draw people back downtown.
Could a “social district” be one way?
The idea is to let people buy an adult beverage at a restaurant or bar and drink it while walking to their next stop.
Social districts would have set days and hours of operations and geographic limits. The Raleigh City Council is considering the Fayetteville Street area for a pilot program that could begin in late summer.
“It’s folks on a Saturday, just kind of strolling and [who] have a drink in their hand and stop into a store that’s participating and shop,” said Council member Jonathan Melton. “It’s not meant to be this party vibe; it’s more to enjoy the amenities of the city.”
Majority ‘interested and supportive’
Recently allowed by state law, social districts have popped up in cities such as Greensboro, Kannapolis and Monroe. Charlotte and Durham are also reviewing where potential social districts could go.
Businesses or buildings can opt-out of allowing people to bring beverages into their establishments, and drinks must be purchased from a participating business out of a designated, branded cup to keep people from bringing in their own drinks, from home or outside the district.
The Downtown Raleigh Alliance gave a presentation with survey results to the City Council’s Economic Development and Innovation Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Out of 734 responses, 74% of downtown business owners, office workers and downtown residents supported or generally supported the creation of a social district, said Bill King, president of the alliance.
“A pretty substantial majority is generally interested and supportive,” he said.
But some people hesitated the closer the district got to their front door.
“I do want to call out a nuance here,” King said. “When we started in our feedback sessions to talk to residents about their specific building being in the district, that’s where you generally saw people shift a little bit towards ‘I’d like to know more information.’ So that is important as engagement continues on this.”
The main concerns are potential bad behavior, trash, enforcement and general logistics, according to the survey.
The alliance showed different potential boundaries for the district, all including Fayetteville Street at the center going to McDowell, Morgan, South, Person and Blount streets. While some people surveyed expressed interest in a social district in Glenwood South, the council committee wasn’t interested.
Some examples extended the boundary to in and around the Warehouse District that could include people attending a concert at the Red Hat Amphitheater.
Stretching the borders to the Warehouse District, at least in the pilot, might take the focus away from the intended areas, Melton said.
“I know one of the intents with this legislation was to help with economic recovery in areas that still need it,” he said. “And the reason why we initially pinpointed Fayetteville Street is because Fayetteville Street, it seems, really needs a little jolt because of COVID. And quite frankly, even before COVID.”
‘Getting it right’
The council committee didn’t make a decision Tuesday but could vote in late June. Then it would go to the entire City Council for a vote.
The alliance is still soliciting feedback through its annual survey, and city staff members will also provide information to the council committee about Greensboro’s district.
“First off, having lived through ‘Drunktown,’ I know that there’s probably some skepticism about this,” said Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. “And, again, it’s a pilot program. And I think if it goes well, we will build support.”
‘Drunktown’ is the infamous full-page advertisement that featured a nauseous-looking man leaning on a lamppost. The ad attacked Baldwin and others in the 2015 Raleigh City Council election over sidewalk drinking restrictions.
“We don’t want a repeat of the sort of ‘Drunktown’ issue,” Melton said. “But also you could talk a thing in circles at some point. So I want to get to a point where we’ve got some good feedback. It is a pilot, which is a way to gather feedback, and then also get one up and running. Because I mean Greensboro is already doing it.
“I like to lead on issues,” he said. “And so I certainly don’t want Durham and Charlotte to get ahead of us.”
Baldwin agreed but said cities that have already created a social district are smaller than Raleigh.
“If that takes another month, I’d rather get it right,” she said. “As opposed to just jumping up there.”