Open container ‘social district’ could soon come to downtown Wilmington

Patrons eat at tables lined up along Front Street Thursday evening as part of Downtown Alive's initiative to expand seating areas for downtown restaurants. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The City of Wilmington council could consider an ordinance in the next few months that would create an outdoor drinking “social district” downtown. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON –– Downtown patrons may soon be able to carry and sip alcohol openly in Wilmington as support grows for an outdoor drinking district.

Signed by Gov. Roy Cooper Sept. 10, House Bill 890 revamped ABC laws after receiving broad support in the legislature. The wide-ranging legislation lets ABC Stores conduct online orders, expands the legal growler size from 2 to 4 liters, and allows businesses to serve alcohol past their premises, among other loosened restrictions.

It also authorizes cities and counties to establish defined outdoor areas where people can consume alcohol, also called a “social district.”


PREVIOUSLY: City of Wilmington seriously eyeing loosened restrictions for outdoor drinking

“There’s a real interest in the community on the social district aspect, but there’s a lot of provisions that touch a lot of things on this,” Tony McEwen said of the legislation. “I mean, tastings in ABC stores, the ability to go to the UNCW game and be able to walk away with more than one cup of beer. It’s a pretty far-reaching piece of legislation.”

McEwen is the assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs. He, along with other city staff, tracked the progress of the social district bill in the N.C. General Assembly for several months. People regularly called his office for status updates on the legislation, he said, which was originally presented as its own bill but was later folded into House Bill 860.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo confirmed city staff is already researching the social district concept and expects conversations about an ordinance to start in city council meetings as early as the next 90 to 120 days.

“I’ve seen the concept in other communities, like in Savannah . . . and I think it’s worked wonderfully,” Saffo said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. In fact, I would support it if I think we could enforce it and we could do a good job with it.”

Per the law, social districts need to be clearly identified with conspicuously posted signs. Cities must develop renderings of the boundaries and publicize the times during which the open container is in effect. Then, those details must be published on the city’s website and presented to the ABC Commission.

Consumers could not leave the district or enter a different business with their open beverages.

Alcoholic drinks would be poured into specifically marked to-go containers. The up-to-16-ounce cup must identify where the beverage was purchased, display a logo unique to the district, and state “Drink Responsibly – Be 21.”

Pour Taproom owner Brian Ballard is supportive of the idea. He said his business could easily adopt the containers since they currently sell to-go crowlers. He added the success of the program is dependent upon all business owners being on board to control the amount of alcohol consumed.

“We’re able to police that as businesses, and if all the businesses are doing the same thing, you’re not going to have an issue,” Ballard said.

Downtown Business Alliance (DBA) president Terry Espy believes downtown businesses proved their reliability while managing customers during DBA’s Downtown Alive, an outdoor dining program that ran from June to November 2020. Roads were barricaded off and businesses were permitted to expand their service into the streets. More than 30 eateries participated along Front, Chestnut, Grace, Princess and Dock streets.

A social district would look different than Downtown Alive but represent similar goals. It’s not likely street closures would be tied to the program. However, the overarching idea is to boost the local economy, promote walkability and reduce crowding indoors by encouraging patrons to spread outside –– all of which were objectives of Downtown Alive.

Pour Taproom took advantage of the program and, Ballard said, noticed it drew customers downtown.

“People want to be outside walking around, enjoying themselves, and not necessarily stuck indoors or in a certain area. It’d be nice to have the extra pull, bringing people into the city,” he said. “We have a nice little Riverwalk and everything else. The sunsets are great. And I just think it’d be great for businesses to be able to sell beverages that they can take with them, and enjoy the city.”

City of Charleston staffers called Wilmington representatives to ask how the city pulled off the outdoor dining program. Now, Wilmington is studying Charleston’s open container laws, and comparing them to Savannah’s.

“It’s not about partying. It’s about safely gathering, knowing that we don’t know when we’ll see Covid go away,” Espy said.

Initially, DBA pitched the Riverwalk as the ideal test location to weigh the market’s response to a social district. The walk is also a compromise to ease worries about excessive drinking downtown: “You’re concerned about too much alcohol being available? There’s no bars, really, on that corridor,” Espy said.

But now she’s hearing city officials are considering a social district spanning from 3rd Street to the river, within the central business district.

“Everyone needs to be involved if they’re gonna do it,” Ballard said. “At least a certain area. I mean, after 3rd, there’s really not much, but the CBD area would be perfect.”

Espy said she could envision the district along South Front, North Fourth and even the Cargo District.

“I will say that business owners located on Front Street . . . they want to see it on Front Street,” Espy said. “So the support from the businesses in the area is to take it broader than just a beta site.”

So far business owners are expressing mostly support of the initiative, but it will take input from the public, the police department and others to make it a reality, the mayor said. It wouldn’t be too different from circumstances Wilmington is already familiar with through the Downtown Sundown concert series. Put on by Wilmington Downtown Inc., alcohol was sold and consumed in the street during the concerts.

Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh are also discussing potential areas for social districts, Espy pointed out.

“Cities in general, I think there is a mood to be as helpful as they can to their hospitality industries that have really taken it on the chin in the last couple years,” McEwen said.


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