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More North Carolina cities are allowing patrons to drink alcohol in approved outdoor areas


The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law last year allowing counties and cities to create social districts where patrons can legally consume alcoholic beverages in approved outdoor common areas. Since that bill passed in September 2021, the cities of Kannapolis, Asheville and Hickory have all created their own social districts. Cornelius passed a trial run that's in effect just for St. Patrick's Day. Salisbury City Council members plan to vote on the creation of a social district next month to go into effect May 1 if approved. Rose Williams is the executive director for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. She explains why she thinks this trend is spreading.

Rose Williams: I think it came from the pandemic and the heavy, heavy blow that the pandemic dealt to our downtowns, but particularly our businesses in those downtowns. And so local leaders, legislators, business leaders are all looking for a way to heal that and to help that.

Cities and towns particularly have put a lot of investments in their downtowns. That's the heart of the city. And if that place is doing well, so goes the city. And I think that drove it — city leaders want to do this if it works well for their community. But I think that's where it came to help that downtown business area, that retail area that got hit so hard during the pandemic.

Gwendolyn Glenn: So from what you're seeing, most of these are being established in downtown areas and walkable historic districts?

Williams: Exactly the walkable area. And according to the legislation, it has to be a marked - off area. The city has to file a map with the ABC ( Alcoholic Beverage Control )

commission, even of where it's going to be, and then the city has to mark it out with signs, make signage very clear where that district will lie. How big will it be or small will it be — it's is all up to the local government if they choose to do it. But they'll define it. I think in Salisbury, they're talking about a three - block by three - block area. And they all have the signage.

And of course, it takes further investment, then you have to have the trash receptacles because there have to be a particular type of cup that these drinks go in because it's all about the alcohol. That's what this legislation was really required for because the alcohol rules have to be in place to make this work. So you also might have to have noise monitored to make sure that these areas aren't going to be too noisy for the area, or at least that they're placed in areas where the noise won't be a problem.

Glenn: You talked about a lot of the benefits in terms of helping cities during the pandemic. What do you see — any drawbacks?

Williams: The city will try to anticipate that when they decide to have this district or not. And then when they draft it, they want to be careful that they're not going to put in an area maybe where they don't want that noise or a part of their city that maybe it wouldn't fit. And I think that the good thing is that the city can be flexible. So if it doesn't work out, if it's not a favorable thing, they can change that ordinance and take it back. So I think they can take any concerns and make it into a positive.

Glenn: Were you surprised to see this happening and so many cities picking up on this and actually doing it? Because when you think about this area, it's still considered the Bible Belt and you have a lot of restrictions in terms of open container laws to prevent drinking in public spaces. Why do you think this is happening now?

Williams: It is something special to be happening and I think that, you know, we're not becoming downtown New Orleans at all. But again, I think it's the pandemic, and I think it's, as they say, "these unprecedented times" that we're doing anything we can to inject energy and business back down in these downtown areas and main streets in North Carolina. I was just in Washington, D .C . this weekend, and it's very sad to see in such a big city even, the number of restaurants that are papered over, closed bars, one after the other and still not reopened. So if they're having a hard time in D.C., you can imagine how it is all over North Carolina.

Glenn: I guess St. Patrick's Day is a good time for a lot of these to be kicking off.

Williams: That's right. It is a great time for that to be kicking off, and I think those cities have already taken advantage of that. I'm sure we'll see use of that today. You do see this in other areas, in other states. And so it's something to look at and you have a model to go by. But this is .. . R ght , hose cities already have it passed. We'll see how that goes today.

Glenn: One thing I heard was, one person who lives in Hickory was not very happy with this, and her reasoning was, you are opening up these social districts so people can drink outside. But the state still hasn't passed, for instance, medicinal marijuana laws to help people who have a lot of health problems. Have you heard any kind of input comparing the two, as this person did in Hickory?

Williams: Yeah, that's an interesting comparison, and there is a big push for medicinal marijuana. I know that. That's very interesting. I think this came from more of an economic development position, and that's where this is coming from. And so it's a different chapter of need. I think this is all about the economy.

Glenn: And how do you see this playing out in the future? Where do you see it going?

Williams: I think again, it'll be another tool in the toolkit as cities work with their downtown development offices, their main street to just decide how to best grow and change and expand what they're doing and be flexible. And the more flexibility and authority the city has to make good things happen for their constituents and their businesses and residents, the better. So I think it'll be a good thing and I think it'll stay.

Glenn: Well, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Williams: Thank you so much for having me. And happy St. Patrick's Day.

Glenn: Happy St. Patty's Day.

Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.