Wednesday, May 29, 2024

NC trend: Social districts rev the state’s downtowns

Head to downtown Kannapolis and you’ll be met with folks heading to a Kannapolis Cannon Ballers baseball game, couples leaving a nice dinner at one of the city’s many restaurants, and the occasional person walking around enjoying a beer in a clearly marked open container. 

What might seem like a bit of an oddity has become more common in cities throughout North Carolina due to a new law passed in September 2021 allowing for the establishment of social districts, or defined outdoor areas in which individuals can drink alcoholic beverages sold by permitted establishments. Within each district, alcoholic drinks can be purchased, carried around and even enjoyed in other participating establishments. 

Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham have all created downtown social districts in recent months, but smaller towns have been leading the way.

The city of Kannapolis had been exploring a similar idea for years as it worked on a revitalization plan for its downtown area, which included building a minor league baseball stadium, a public parking deck and an overhaul of West Avenue – its version of a main street. It was the first city to establish a social district just weeks after the bill was signed.

“We knew we wanted to transform that whole downtown area into an urban park,” says Annette Privette Keller, the city’s communications director. “As soon as we knew the legislation was going to go through, it fit perfectly into our plans.” 

For many towns and cities that have established these social districts, helping restaurants and other businesses thrive after a tough few years due to the pandemic was a driving factor. But more than an increase in foot traffic, social districts seem to provide an incentive for businesses looking to open in cities who have them established. Each city and town interviewed listed several businesses opening within their social district in the next 12 to 18 months.

“We are in negotiations with three new businesses that are all interested in Norwood because of the social district,” said Robin Davis, president of the Stanly County town’s Central Business District Group.

In Hickory, Imagine One Hospitality is planning to open restaurants Cowa-sake and Frothy Rooster in the One North Center building in its downtown social district. Cranford Brothers Barbeque and City Walk Brewing and Distilling have announced that they will be redeveloping another building there this year. And Kannapolis expects Gaelic Alley Irish Pub to open in the next several months. 

“It has been a wonderful addition to what we can offer down-town,” Keller says.

Gotta do something 

Establishing a social district can be a simple process. The first step is presenting the proposed district to the city or town council for approval. At these meetings, the council approves the designated area for the social district and citizens are able to voice any concerns.

Norwood in Stanly County developed a social district to help attract visitors to the nearby Uwharrie Mountains.

“Everyone was of the same opinion that we have to do some-thing,” Davis said of Norwood’s town council meeting. Businesses were struggling to make up the losses they endured during the pandemic and needed revival. “I give the town administrator and council credit for taking a risk. Everyone came together and knew it would be a path forward for us.”

Norwood, a town of 2,400 people on Lake Tillery northeast of Charlotte, was the second N.C. town to establish a social district. Davis says there were no dissenting or negative opinions presented. When Town Administrator Scott Howard originally presented a social district area containing 14 businesses, the council quickly moved to make the district larger to include 32 total businesses. 

Once a council has approved the formation of a social district, the area must register with the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. From there, it’s a matter of putting up appropriate signage designating the area and ensuring all businesses are aware of the laws. The ABC Commission has 18 municipalities with registered social districts as of early January. 

Towns and cities must establish specific hours when alcohol is allowed. They also have to create specially branded cups to note where each beverage was purchased, ensuring participating businesses have the required permits.

Before social districts, North Carolina towns could get permits for beer gardens or common area entertainment districts. Hickory opened one in February 2021 at a city-owned parcel where patrons could enjoy alcoholic beverages purchased from three participating businesses. 

Hickory switched to a social district in March covering a 50-block area. Window clings let passersby know if alcohol is allowed in adjacent establishments, says David Leonetti, the city’s business services and redevelopment manager. 

‘Not anything excessive’

One of the biggest fears surrounding social districts is that there will be much more carousing and crime. Those involved say there’s been no uptick in public disturbances. “I meet regularly with our police department’s patrol staff, we have an officer stationed downtown and we haven’t had any issues with security,” Leonetti says. “All the feedback has been great.” 

Keller said there have been no issues in Kannapolis. “It’s not that people are showing up and just drinking and drinking and drinking,” she says. “You’re having a glass of wine or a beer outside at a table. It’s not anything excessive.” 

Norwood officials point to their Harbor Day celebration in April, which brought thousands more visitors downtown with no incident.  

“For small towns who might be afraid of the implications they perceive a social district would bring, I think I’d encourage them to consider what economic development can do for their town,” says Davis. “I don’t think we would have the level of interest in people wanting to open up taverns, taprooms or bars without opening that social district.” 

The fears have prompted some towns to hold off on creating social districts. Proposals were voted down in Murphy, at the western tip of the state, and in Wake Forest near Raleigh.

A patron enjoyed the Sails Original Music Series in Hickory, which set up a social district covering 50 downtown blocks.


In Hickory, the city uses mobile software to track foot traffic on Union Square. The data shows an increase since the social district was put into place. Leonetti mentioned the city’s recent Oktoberfest, which saw thousands moving between businesses. In the past, patrons would have been confined to beer gardens. 

Norwood officials have seen a true nightlife experience develop in their small town, which is something they had struggled to activate. Businesses are also working together to create programming and events to attract customers.

Keller says alcohol is a small component of what’s driving the increase in traffic in Kannapolis.  The social district has encouraged businesses to create programming such as run clubs and local meet-ups. 

“The social district gave us another tool in the toolbox to encourage revitalization in downtown,” she says.

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