By Sean Connor
What would make that beer even better? Strolling around downtown with it, that’s what!
Thanks to a new state law allowing for “social districts,” imbibers can tote their beverages around a specified district in any town or city willing to take the steps to implement one.
According to Elizabeth Robinson, senior vice president of the N.C. Retail Merchant Association, there are 31 local jurisdictions across the state that have districts, but only one in Western North Carolina: Sylva.
The bill — sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper last July — introduced the concept of social districts in September 2021. They are defined as designated outdoor areas in which a person may consume alcoholic beverages sold by a licensed seller.
In other words, no more having to chug your drink because the kids want ice cream. Instead, you’re able to purchase a clearly marked cup and walk around the town with your drink of choice, all while experiencing the various shops and watering holes within the district.
Chris Barranco, a bartender at Innovation Brewing in Sylva, first thought the idea would bring unwanted issues to the town and participating merchants, but so far, it’s been nothing but positive. He thinks it has the potential to be more popular in the area as more people hear about it.
A lifeboat for struggling small businesses
The social district idea arose after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the governor to allow restaurants to expand their outdoor serving areas to provide more social distancing.
“The original intent of the bill was to increase retail sales in the wake of the pandemic,” explains Bernadette Peters, Main Street Sylva Association’s economic development director.
While sales statistics aren’t available, there is some anecdotal evidence that the new law has been positive for participating local businesses. “Sylva in general has picked up, so I think the timing of it was perfect,” says Megan Kenny, taproom manager at Lazy Hiker Brewing. “It’s been smoother than I thought it was going to be, and I think it gives everyone a chance to walk around town and experience every shop.”
The social district also appears to have helped downtown merchants benefit from more traffic during local festivals. “Instead of locking them into some type of beer cage at the festival location, they could browse the vendors and merchants downtown,” says Peters.
Avoiding the social district hangover
Before officially implementing its social district ordinance, the town of Sylva conducted a trial during the first half of 2022. According to Peters, the economic development team tracked calls through the local police department and compared it to previous years. After the six-month trial, Peters explains, “there was no increase in alcohol-related calls in our downtown district, so we rolled it out fully.”
Sylva Chief of Police Chris Hatton confirmed this. “We compiled the statistics for what is now the social district for the past three years to create a baseline,” says Hatton. The department then compared all service calls in the designated social district area to calls during the trial period. As of February, “we have not experienced any significant increase or decrease in these types of calls,” says Hatton.
However, one lesson learned was to seek merchant input before the council votes on the matter, Peters says. Sylva held these meetings after the vote, which caused some unwanted conflict among merchants.
The main concerns — so far unrealized — among council members and some residents were that the district might result in more overconsumption and a raft of discarded plastic cups.
To address this unease, Sylva decided to use stainless steel cups instead of plastic ones to reduce litter. Also, the required stainless steel cups cost $10 each, which might temper excessive use. The Sylva social district is open seven days a week from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. (starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays)
“So far, there’s no evidence to suggest the social district will be a law enforcement problem in Sylva’s future,” says Hatton. “But if that changes, we will address it.”
Sylva also learned the plan should allow retailers to opt into the social district as opposed to opting out, says Peters. This allows participating merchants to benefit while not demonizing those merchants not interested in participating.
Come one, come all
On a recent visit to Sylva by way of Knoxville, Tenn., Don Maples says he and his wife were impressed with the town’s social district.
“We were doing a road trip to visit some different breweries and decided to stop here in Sylva because there are so many within walking distance,” says Maples. “We stopped at the Lazy Hiker first, and that’s where we saw the ‘special cups.’ We inquired about it, and that’s when the bartender explained everything to us.”
“We’ve asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t Knoxville do something like this?’” They loved that there was no pressure to finish their drinks and that the stainless steel cup is sustainable and can be reused countless times as long as you manage not to lose it.
WNC not feeling the buzz (so far)
Despite Sylva’s apparent success, towns like Hendersonville — which tabled the initial social district discussions in November — are not exactly sold on the idea.
“I’m not in favor of it and I don’t think it would serve any real economic purpose here in Hendersonville,” says Mayor Barbara Volk.
Volk says there just wasn’t enough of a response from either City Council members or residents to go any further with the idea. “I didn’t get a lot of feedback, but the feedback I did get was negative,” explains Volk.
However, she hasn’t completely abandoned the concept.
“If any other council members want to bring it up again, they are certainly welcome to, but so far, no one has mentioned it” since the discussion was tabled last year.
The city of Asheville is also not climbing on (or falling off?) the wagon.
“The legal allowance is still pretty new, but the intent [of a social district] is to generate commercial activity,” explains city spokesperson Kim Miller. “This isn’t something Asheville is struggling with in its downtown, so the need simply hasn’t been there.”
3 thoughts on “Social districts slow to catch on in WNC”
Rutherfordton NC is currently working on a social district, hope to have in place shortly.
Oh no we don’t need people wandering around drinking in downtown Asheville. Remember the last couple of years of Belle Chere. It got ugly towards the end of it. People did not want to be exposed to it. We have enough drunks wandering around without adding open containers to the mix. We would be looking like the French Quarter in NOLA. No way please.
Actually, with all the open drug use going on in downtown Asheville, I’ll stroll around with an open beverage whenever I want.
Try and stop me.