Wilmington city council may consider an ordinance in the coming months that would create a “social district” for outdoor drinking downtown. (Photo by Port City Daily / Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON –– Downtown shoppers will soon be able to openly transport and sip alcohol in Wilmington as support grows for an outdoor drinking district.

Signed by Governor Roy Cooper on September 10, Bill 890 reorganized the ABC laws after receiving broad support from the legislature. The sweeping legislation allows ABC stores to place orders online, extends the legal growler size from 2 to 4 liters, and allows businesses to serve alcohol in front of their premises, among other relaxed restrictions.

It also allows cities and counties to establish defined outdoor spaces where people can consume alcohol, also known as a “social neighborhood”.

PREVIOUSLY: City of Wilmington is seriously considering easing restrictions on outdoor alcohol consumption

“There is a real community interest in the social neighborhood aspect, but there are a lot of provisions that touch a lot of things about it,” Tony McEwen said of the legislation. “I mean, tastings at ABC stores, the ability to go to the UNCW game and be able to walk away with more than a cup of beer. This is a far-reaching bill.

McEwen is the City Manager’s Assistant for Legislative Affairs. With other members of the city staff, he followed for several months the progress of the bill on the social district at the General Assembly of the NC. People regularly called his office for updates on legislation, he said, which was initially billed as his own bill, but was later incorporated into House Bill 860.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo confirmed that city staff are already studying the concept of a social neighborhood and expect conversations about an ordinance to begin at city council meetings as early as the next 90 to 120 days.

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

In accordance with the law, social quarters must be clearly identified with prominent signs. Cities should develop boundary renderings and publicize the hours the open container is in effect. Then these details must be posted on the city’s website and presented to the ABC Commission.

Consumers could not leave the neighborhood or enter another business with their drinks open.

Alcoholic beverages would be poured into specifically marked take-out containers. The 16-ounce cup or less must indicate where the drink was purchased, display a logo unique to the district, and read “Drink Responsibly – Be 21”.

Pour Taproom owner Brian Ballard supports the idea. He said his company could easily embrace containers since it currently sells take-out crowlers. He added that the success of the program depends on the participation of all business owners to control the amount of alcohol consumed.

“We are able to control that as businesses, and if all businesses do the same thing, you won’t have a problem,” Ballard said.

Downtown Business Alliance (DBA) President Terry Espy believes downtown businesses have proven their reliability while handling customers during the DBA Downtown Alive, an outdoor dining program that ran from June to November 2020. Roads were barricaded and businesses were allowed to extend their service to the streets. . Over 30 restaurants participated along Front, Chestnut, Grace, Princess and Dock streets.

A social district would be different from Downtown Alive but would represent similar goals. Street closures are unlikely to be linked to the program. However, the overall idea is to stimulate the local economy, promote the ability to walk and reduce overcrowding indoors by encouraging customers to spill out outdoors – which was all of Downtown Alive’s goals. .

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

“People want to be outside, walk around, have fun, and not necessarily be stuck inside or in a certain area. It would be nice to have the added appeal, bringing people into the city, ”he said. “We have a nice little Riverwalk and everything. The sunsets are great. And I just think it would be great for businesses to be able to sell drinks that they can take with them and enjoy the city.

City of Charleston employees called Wilmington officials to ask how the city was doing with the al fresco dining program. Now Wilmington is studying Charleston’s open container laws and comparing them to those in Savannah.

“It’s not about partying. It’s about coming together in safety knowing that we don’t know when we’ll see Covid disappear, ”Espy said.

Initially, DBA touted the Riverwalk as the ideal test location to gauge the market’s response to a social neighborhood. Walking is also a compromise to allay concerns about excessive alcohol consumption in the city center: “Worried that too much alcohol is available? There are no bars, really, in this hallway, ”Espy said.

But now she hears city officials envisioning a social district stretching from 3rd Street to the river in the central business district.

“Everyone has to be involved if they want to do it,” Ballard said. “At least a certain area. I mean after the 3 there really isn’t much, but the CBD area would be perfect.

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

“I will say business owners located on Front Street. . . they want to see it on Front Street, ”Espy said. “So the support of businesses in the region goes beyond a simple beta site. “

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

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

“Cities in general, I think there’s a mood in being as helpful as possible to their hotel industries that have really taken it on the chin over the past couple of years,” McEwen said.


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