MONROE, N.C. — On a recent Friday around 6 p.m., Tony Brown, an open cup of beer in hand, went walking through this city’s downtown district to take in an outdoor car show.
Four months earlier, it would have been illegal for Brown, or anyone else, to consume alcohol while walking the streets of Monroe. But on June 10, the town joined a growing list of N.C. cities to establish a social district — a designated outdoor zone where open containers are freely permitted.
“It’s not too bad,” Brown said of Monroe’s social district. “I would’ve had to have left my beer, or drank it all, and then come out here. Now, I can enjoy it as I walk around.”
As city officials in Charlotte now look to emulate other municipalities that have created social districts, QCity Metro traveled to Monroe, population 35,000, to see how it’s going.
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Matt Black, the city’s downtown director, said so far so good.
“We’ve seen a larger influx of foot traffic within the downtown area,” he said, “specifically people participating in the social district.”
In 2008, Black said, the city adopted a Downtown Master Plan to guide the economic development in that area. Since then, the town has attracted a number of new restaurants, entertainment venues and shops and, most recently, revitalized its historic Dowd Center Theatre.
Monroe has gotten almost $15 million in private investments over the last two years, Black said, including two new breweries and at least six taprooms and restaurants.
So when time came to consider creating the Monroe Social District, Black called it a “no brainer.”
The move to create social districts in North Carolina began after Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 in September 2021, allowing cities and counties to designate outdoor zones where people can legally drink alcoholic beverages bought from a state-permitted business.
Alcohol sales in the state are regulated by the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission, so social districts are required to be registered with the state and abide by state-prescribed rules.
So far, Raleigh, Greensboro, Kannapolis, Monroe, Cornelius, Newton, Salisbury and Norwood have each added social districts. Similar districts have sprouted in states including Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Alabama.
Last month, Charlotte City Council voted to approve social districts as a concept but hasn’t designated any specific zones. Several areas have expressed interest, including Plaza Midwood, Noda, South End and Ballantyne.
Dean Stump, owner of the Courthouse Self-Pour in Monroe, said he opened the bar two years ago but struggled with business because of the pandemic.
He said business has grown since the social district was approved, and he expects a further increase now that football season has started.
“I have a big-screen TV, so I’m gonna start showing Panthers games this Sunday when they come on at one o’clock,” he said. “Hopefully that’ll draw a crowd.”
Coliesta Vidak, co-owner of Main Street Bistro, said her business has slowly seen the benefits of Monroe’s social district. Revenue, she said, increased at least 10% since June.
“As (the social district) continues to grow in popularity, it will continue to grow,” she said of her business.
Aaron McBride and his friend Bob Brown were sitting outside of The Courthouse Self-Pour when they spoke with QCity Metro.
A Monroe resident since 1999, McBride said downtown is the busiest he’s seen in a long time.
“Ten years ago, this would be a ghost town on Friday night after five o’clock,” he said.
Despite the social district’s apparent success, some expressed concerns.
Christie Little, an employee at Peddlers Paradise, a Monroe gift shop, said she loves how much patrons enjoy the experience, but she’s concerned for families with young children.
“Some parents don’t have the privilege of finding a babysitter to come,” she said.
Little said she thinks the town should create a babysitting center for parents who want to walk and drink.
At the Oasis Sandwich Shop, owner Tim Ratliff isn’t participating in the social district, so no alcohol is permitted in his store.
“We’re a family business,” he said, “so we don’t serve alcohol and don’t think it would be a good idea to have alcohol around kids.”
Captain David Morton of the Monroe Police Department said the town’s social district has not caused crime to increase.
“We have responsible business owners that are following the law, and we’ve just not seen any issues thus far,” he said.
Charlotte officials say social districts are good for business, attracting tourists and encouraging locals to get out and spend money with local shops.
Councilman Larken Egleston has been a vocal supporter.
“Our hospitality industry, which employs one in nine people in the Charlotte community, is one of the ones that got hit the hardest during the pandemic,” he told WCNC in April. “It’s just now starting to recover, particularly in our center city.”
McBride, who was sitting outside the Monroe bar with his friend, wondered how the concept might play out in Charlotte, a far larger city with a population of more than 873,000 people.
“When the sun goes down, (Charlotte) changes a lot, so it probably won’t work,” he said. “But small towns like this, people keep their head about them.”
Morton, the police captain, said Charlotte should do well, so long as rules are followed.
“The big thing is to make sure that the business owners and the public are well informed of the law,” he said. “The cooperation between business owners and the police department is important, too.”
While each N.C. city is allowed to establish the boundaries of its social district, along with days and times of operation, other rules are prescribed by state law, including:
North Carolina’s first social district was established Oct. 1, 2021, in Kannapolis, northeast of Charlotte, less than a month after Gov. Cooper signed the enabling legislation.
Annette Privette Keller, the city’s communications director, said the timing was perfect for the Kannapolis social district, corresponding with the opening of 40 new businesses and restaurants in the downtown area.
“It’s another amenity to our downtown,” Keller said. “You can dine outside, bring your book club or yoga class and enjoy a glass of wine, cider or a beer. It adds to the social experience of our downtown.”
In Greensboro, residents and visitors have had a “great experience” with the city’s Downtown Border of Refreshments Outdoors (BORO) zone, Assistant City Manager Nathanael Davis said in a statement to QCity Metro. Locals and visitors can stroll the zone, drinks in hand, from noon to 9 p.m.
“Everyone seems to be appreciative of the freedom to walk downtown with friends and family,” Davis said in the statement.