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New outdoor drinking social district opens Saturday in downtown Franklin

The downtown social district in Franklin opens on Saturday June 22.
Lilly Knoepp
The downtown social district in Franklin opens on Saturday June 22.

The town of Franklin will open its social district for the first time on Saturday, permitting public consumption of alcohol in the designated zone.

Towns across Western North Carolina have been discussing the new option for municipalities to establish social districts since a state law change three years ago – a stark contrast to former state “blue laws.”

To answer community questions before the opening, the town hosted an information session on Thursday but no one attended.

Franklin Town Manager Amie Owens was planning to answer questions at the public meeting, hand out information about the district, and show off the design of the social district cup.

“I am rather surprised by that, especially given that when the ordinance passed there was such an outcry of individuals who were against it,” Owens said of the lack of attendance.

Social districts are designated outdoor areas where adults 21 and up can legally consume alcoholic beverages. There are about 50 social districts in municipalities across North Carolina.

The green sign shows that Outdoor 76 is participating in the social district. Alcohol is available inside at the Rock House Lodge.
Lilly Knoepp
The green sign shows that Outdoor 76 is participating in the social district. Alcohol is available inside at the Rock House Lodge.

The town council unanimously voted to create the downtown social district in January.Some community members have questioned the public safety implications of the move and the impact on downtown.

Business owners downtown were also divided on the issue. Red and green signs in the windows of Main Street business show which allow social district cups inside.

There are 17 businesses that will allow social district drinking inside their stores and six that won’t allow drinking in their stores.

“People who typically don't allow food and drink in their store anyway have said that they weren't going to allow the adult beverages as well,” Owens said.

Five businesses on Main Street with ABC licenses will be serving alcohol in the social district cups: The Rathskeller, Motor Company Grill, Gracious Plates, J.R. Chophouse and the Rock House Lodge inside Outdoor 76.

The plastic cups can be purchased for $4 and reused. Each time a drink is purchased, the bartender will put on a color-coded sticker that includes the date of purchase. Outside alcohol is not allowed.

“It is our hope that since this is a concept based in economic development that it will be a boost for the ABC permittees as well as the other businesses downtown just to get people out and about on the weekends and shopping and going to the restaurants,” Owens said.

The social district map follows Main Street from Town Hall west down to the Lazy Hiker Brewing at the corner of West Main and Porter Street. Stewart Street behind the clock tower is also included. The district is open from noon to 9 p.m., every day.

The map of the social district can be updated with by the town council.
Courtesy of Town of Franklin
The map of the social district can be updated with by the town council.

However, the social district does not include county-owned property downtown such as the Clock Tower Square, the Gazebo or Rankin Square. The town asked Macon County Commissioners to expand the district in November 2023 but the issue was tabled.

County-owned Rankin Square is not part of the social district.
Lilly Knoepp
County-owned Rankin Square is not part of the social district.

“We did request that the lease be updated to allow it at least on gazebo square and that discussion was tabled and so, we understand that and we respect that decision,” Owens said.

For example, Owens explained that during downtown events like “Pickin’ on the Square,” those who purchase cups will be able to drink on the town-owned sidewalk but will not be able to sit on the benches in front of the gazebo.

“The town leases the Gazebo Square from the county and part of the lease agreement actually has one clause in it that says, ‘no alcoholic beverages,’ So we are very respectful of the county's policies,” Owens said.

Social districts will be an option during downtown festivals. Owens explained that organizers will be able to opt in or out of the permitting alcohol consumption in line with social district rules.

She said that there has not been a decision about town-organized events such as Pumpkin Fest and Winter Wonderland.

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.