New “social districts” would allow drinking in the streets in parts of Charlotte

New “social districts” would allow drinking in the streets in parts of Charlotte

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

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Gov. Cooper signed a bill earlier this month that would allow North Carolina cities and counties to create their own “social districts” where drinking alcohol in certain outdoor areas is allowed.

Think of these areas as very scaled-down versions of cities like Nashville and Savannah, which both have open container policies.

The “social districts” part of the law — House Bill 890 — aims to increase foot traffic for local businesses in dense areas, according to the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, which lobbied for the measure. Of course, many of these businesses (bars, restaurants, lounges) have experienced substantial financial loss stemming from the pandemic.

A few details about the districts:

  • Local officials must clearly designate the boundaries and hours of the social district, according to the law.
  • Folks who buy alcohol to consume in the district can’t carry it away outside the district.
  • The to-go containers must have some sort of logo or marking indicating it has to stay within the social district.

“It’s vitally important for businesses to come back to these areas,” Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of the NCRMA, tells Axios.

Why it matters: The social districts allowance is the latest instance of North Carolina beginning to loosen up its strict liquor laws.

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  • Also part of HB890: A provision allowing distilleries to sell their bottles on Sundays.
  • And a few years ago, Cooper signed into law the “Brunch Bill,” which allowed bars and restaurants to serve alcohol starting at 10am on Sundays instead of noon.

Historically, plenty of politicians from both parties have been conservative when it comes to the state’s liquor laws, says Charlotte city councilman Larken Egleston. “I think the thing that’s moved the needle for a lot of those people is seeing what it could mean for small businesses throughout the state.”

  • Plus, the pandemic creates further opportunity for something like social districts. Many people are still more comfortable eating and drinking outdoors than indoors.

Charlotte hasn’t yet discussed where or how large these districts would be, Egleston says. But it’d make sense for them to be in dense areas such as Uptown, South End and Plaza Midwood, he adds.

“I don’t think anyone is envisioning us trying to be Bourbon Street. But we can be more modern and innovative with laws surrounding our entertainment and tourism and our food and drink culture,” Egleston says.

Wilmington is already exploring the possibility of creating social districts, including along its Riverwalk area along the Cape Fear River.

  • Restaurants on Front Street along the river support adding social districts, according to the city’s Downtown Business Alliance.

In recent early discussions, the area around 5th and College in Uptown have surfaced as possibilities for social districts, as has Camden Road in South End, Moira Quinn, chief operating officer of Charlotte Center City Partners, told the Charlotte Ledger last week.

“We are still evaluating the bill and its possible applications in Center City,” Rick Thurmond, SVP of community development at CCCP, told Axios via email.

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