August 8, 2022 7:00am

Durham's Ready for a Social Drinking District, Raleigh and Cary Less So

"A fun idea, but could result in debauchery."

Photo of Leigh Tauss
Raleigh, NC Correspondent

Visitors in downtown Raleigh will soon be able to imbibe in public––with restrictions––thanks to a new pilot program. City leaders hope the new “social district” will encourage more foot traffic downtown and be a boon to local businesses. Durham’s considering a similar program, and as Cary’s nightlife grows more vibrant, it’s easy to imagine a social district there too (though nothing is currently in the works, town officials say).

The idea is that folks will sip and stroll downtown, and hopefully hit up some local businesses too. Social districts were legalized statewide by a bill earlier this year and cities like Greensboro and Kannapolis have already adopted programs.

This month's Power Poll indicates at least half of respondents support the idea of a social drinking district, while another quarter are willing to give the pilot program a try. But support varied significantly between cities: in Durham, 70% of respondents supported the program compared to just 36% of respondents in Raleigh and Cary.

Concerns include the impact open-carry alcohol could have on public safety and crime downtown, while others worried the burden of enforcement would fall on businesses already stretched thin.

Seven years ago, political ads accused then-Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin of trying to turn downtown into “Drunk Town.” Last month, Mayor Baldwin and the city council unanimously voted in favor of the pilot program, which will let patrons take alcoholic beverages “to-go” from participating businesses starting August 15.

But just how ready are residents for a downtown drinking district?

Overall, 50% of Triangle respondents support social districts in their downtowns and another 24% say that while they have concerns, they want to see how the pilot goes. Another 14% say they may be open to a program with more restrictions while 11% were fully against the idea.
But broken down by municipality, it's clear Durhamites are ready to have a social district while Raleigh and Cary have more apprehensions.
Here's Durham, where a combined 83% of respondents support a pilot program.

And here's Raleigh and Cary, where 31% of folks say they'd want to see more restrictions.

So why are folks in Raleigh and Cary more wary about adopting a social district? Here's what members said.

Worry allowing more drinking downtown would be a detriment to public safety and increased crime was the top concern among members, according to an analysis of responses.

"The drunks are unruly," wrote one member.
"This is a fun idea, but could result in debauchery."
"Give an inch, people take a foot."

Inevitably, some will abuse the program. But many members feel adults can be trusted to act responsibly while drinking in public, or at least be given the benefit of the doubt by the local government.

Enforcement was also a concern: who would be responsible for supplying the cups and preventing drinks purchased outside the district from being consumed and taking away business from bars and restaurants.

"As a business owner, I don’t want this to decrease sales," wrote a member.

"I worry on behalf of service industry workers and small businesses - they are already stretched very thin, and the enforcement of the social district will likely fall on them."

One member worried it would fuel gentrification and not solve much for the city's working class.

"This is just another way for hipsters and yuppies to gentrify downtown Durham; we need to expand opportunities for businesses and nonprofits to meaningfully serve the people who ought to feel at home downtown the most--poor and working class people and especially poor and working class people of color."

Another member criticized the council for failing to consult business owners downtown first.

"My HQ building sits in the middle of the social district. There was no engagement whatsoever of the stakeholders in the new social district that aren't bar owners and the impact it might have on our businesses. This has been a typical pattern for the city in recent years. Ignore key constituents and just plow through with initiatives. We are pretty upset and contemplating a move out of Downtown Raleigh as a result,"

Still, many members were supportive of the program, hoping it would increase pedestrian traffic downtown and spur tourism by creating more of a "destination."

"Done correctly, I think it is a good way to activate an area," one member wrote. "Having visited Savannah and seeing how well it works there, I hope to use this city as an example of how to proceed."

Just for fun, or maybe because I'd rather be drinking out in a street somewhere (kidding), I asked what you'd fill your cup with in a social district. Beer drinkers for the win! And cheers to the 16% of folks that have to deal with the rest of us.

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