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Town of Franklin says cheers to the new year

Franklin town council unanimously passed a resolution to create a social district downtown on January 2, 2024.
Lilly Knoepp
Franklin town council unanimously passed a resolution to create a social district downtown on January 2, 2024.

Franklin Town Council unanimously approved the creation of a downtown social district this week. Social districts, designated outdoor area where people can legally consume alcoholic beverages, became legal in the state in 2021.

In far western North Carolina, several counties only recently allowed alcohol sales, so allowing open containers in public places has been controversial for local governments.

Sylva, Waynesville and Murphy have all tackled the issue – with different results.

The Franklin Town board has been considering the move since February 2023.

“The Town Council was aware that there could be support for, and opposition to, the social district and are knowingly moving forward to provide new experiences and opportunities for citizens and visitors to Franklin,” said Town Manager Amie Owens in a press release.

In April 2023, representatives from two local bars, Lazy Hiker and Outdoor 76, both spoke in favor of the district.

The Franklin-based Lazy Hiker brewery was founded in 2015. The brewery has expanded to a second location in Sylva in neighboring Jackson County. Sylva set up a social district in 2022.

Lazy Hiker Head Brewer Graham Norris told the council that he was not aware of any issues with the Sylva Social District, according to meeting minutes.

He said adding a Social District to Downtown Franklin would bring more people to the downtown area and improve the festivals, according to minutes.

“We are still not experiencing any noticeable increase in calls for service related (to) the Social District in Sylva,” Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton said in an email to BPR.

In May 2023, Main Street Economic Development Director for the Town of Sylva Bernadette Peters gave the Franklin board a presentation about how the town’s social district has worked.

Sylva did a six-month test period for open containers within a certain area of downtown on weekends. Downtown retailers had the option to participate or decline. After the test period, the social district’s hours expanded to Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The boundaries of the social district are noted by $3500 of signage including stickers on the ground. Each sign includes a QR code which links to the rules for the district on the Main Street Association website.

The Franklin social district will open in about four months, according to a press release. The town is working to set up signs, design social district cups and register with the state ABC Commission.

The district will operate from noon until 9:00 p.m. every day. At all other times, unless a permit has been obtained for a special event, alcohol consumption in public areas will remain illegal.

“Education will be provided to those ABC permitted establishments and merchants within the social district during the next few months to ensure that when the district does go live, all will be prepared,” Owens said in a press release.

Social districts will also be an option during downtown festivals. The squares downtown (Clock Tower, Gazebo and Rankin) will remain alcohol-free at all times as they are owned by Macon County, not the Town of Franklin, and are not included in the district.

Town Council member David Culpepper and Town Manager Amie Owens gave a presentation to Macon County Commissioners about the district proposal in November 2023 and asked that the Clock Tower be included in the social district. They specified that Rankin Square be excluded.

“Dry counties don’t keep alcohol out; they actually encourage more illegal drug use. So again, this is a much bigger topic than just social districts, but I’m scared for my kids too and I think this is more likely to help than it is to hurt,” Culpepper said at the meeting.

Commissioner Gary Shields asked a number of follow up questions including whether the Franklin Area Tourism Development Commission had been asked for its input. He said that he could not vote on the issue until he spoke with the commission.

The issue was ultimately tabled by commissioners.

Event sponsors will have the option to request that the social district be suspended during their events during the application process.

Individuals who take social district cups out of the social district area will be subject to fines, according to the town.

There are currently 38 municipalities in the state with active social districts. Beer City USA, aka Asheville, has surprisingly not tackled the issue.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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