At five p.m. last Thursday, Durham’s new social district, the Bullpen, kicked off. At 6:45, I stop by Queeny’s off of East Chapel Hill Street, where owners Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead have converted a front storage room with a to-go window into a casual sidewalk spot to order drinks.
Ahead of me, two customers deliberate over the festive drinks menu, which includes hot chocolate with the option to add rum, spiced cider with the option to add whiskey, Cabernet, and PBR. When it’s my turn, I ask Umstead how the novelty is faring.
“Well, you just saw my first and second customers,” Umstead says brightly. He’s leaning out of a window trimmed festively with holiday lights and seems ambivalent about the grand promise of the social district, though he adds that he is a stalwart fan of efforts to make downtown more animated.
“I like a lively downtown,” Umstead says, “and I think Durham has an incredibly walkable downtown. It’s part of why we opened Queeny’s.”
In shorthand, the social district is for outdoor drinking; in longhand, it’s an effort to encourage more foot traffic and business downtown.
In September 2021, Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 into effect, permitting local governments to allow social districts where people can drink alcohol in designated areas. The omnibus ABC legislation received support from both sides of the aisle, and several towns and cities, including Greensboro, Kannapolis, and Monroe, quickly rolled out social districts; there are now 18 such districts across the state. This August, Raleigh followed suit with its pilot “Sip and Stroll” social district.
Raleigh City Council member Jonathan Melton spearheaded the city’s social district and says that, so far, he feels it has been a boon.
“I check in with Bill King of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance now and then and he says the feedback has been outstanding,” Melton says. “I’ve been out there myself a handful of times and I see a lot of folks walking around with their cups, enjoying and taking advantage of it …. I’m pretty excited about that.”
King didn’t respond to an INDY interview request about the social district, but on Tuesday tweeted that Raleigh’s social district had been “helpful in attracting the attention of restaurant prospects,” in response to the popular restaurant Chido Taco’s announcement that it was opening a second location on Fayetteville Street and participating in the social district.
Durham’s Bullpen, which the city council approved in October, is one of the most ambitious districts in the state and casts a wide net, stretching from the Brightleaf District and the American Tobacco Campus to Golden Belt and 147, and all the way to Old North Durham.
Those who wish to carry around a $3 Modelo or $14 cocktail, or anything in between, need only find a bar or restaurant within this perimeter that features the Bullpen-branded window cling and purchase their beverage of choice in a Bullpen-branded cup, which is then marked with a time stamp in order to keep track of it, lest someone drink irresponsibly.
The Bullpen’s hours are hardly those of the young and raging—the ordinance kicks into effect every day at 11 a.m. and is curbed by 10 p.m.—with the intent of capturing the brunch and dinner crowds. The Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI) website lists the businesses that are participating, either by selling alcohol to go or by permitting alcohol in their retail spaces. The website also lists several businesses where to-go alcohol explicitly isn’t allowed (and mercifully so), like the downtown YMCA.
Directly across the street from Queeny’s, at Alley Twenty Six, owner Shannon Healey doesn’t have a special to-go window or a winter to-go drinks menu, but the restaurant is participating in the initiative and he anticipates it having utility.
“The temperature dipped down into the 20s,” Healey says of the Thursday night rollout. “So it wasn’t like there was going to be roving hordes of people.”
Events, Healey anticipates, will be the initiative’s true engine.
“A few folks showed up [on Thursday] and got some stuff, but I honestly believe it’s going to be more for when there are events downtown and people want to get a drink to go to that event,” Healey says. “Or, if people have a drink and they’re ready to leave but haven’t finished, or they’re headed toward DPAC or the Carolina Theatre and want to get walking in that direction, they can take it with them.”
Social districts are simple enough conceptually, though HB 890 probably wouldn’t have passed in North Carolina—a state with a distinctly uptight relationship with alcohol—had the pandemic not crushed the service industry and prompted something of an existential crisis of the American downtown. Offices went remote, and many stayed remote. Shops and restaurants went dark: some reopened, some changed hands. Luxury condos quietly sprung up, prompting enduring questions about whom downtowns really are for.
And today, though most restaurants have returned to some semblance of normality, downtown Durham is still relatively quiet during the day. Some restaurants, like COPA and Goorsha, have stopped serving lunch altogether. Ninety-two new storefronts have opened since 2020, according to a recent report from DDI—and 44 have closed—but with many offices still remote, foot traffic is sluggish and it’s clear that simply waiting for things to return to normal isn’t enough to sustain downtown businesses. According to that same DDI data, approximately 337,600 people visited downtown in September 2019; three years later, in September 2022, just 233,100 passed through during those same hours.
“Our hope is that this will bring people into the downtown area—that they will stay a little bit longer, that they will participate in the program, but that while they’re participating in the initiative and walking with an alcoholic beverage that they’re shopping, they’re going into venues, spending time in our parks and in our green and open spaces,” says Nicole Thompson, CEO of DDI.
Alex Pelliccia and his childhood friend Rob Weidenhamer opened the Durham location of Sherlocks Glass & Dispensary (the flagship store is in Raleigh) in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit. Pelliccia has had to work hard to get the word out about Sherlocks, which is tucked a bit off the beaten path on Broadway Street, but he’s enthusiastic at the prospect of customers from neighboring Durty Bull Brewing Company wandering over with a beer to shop.
“The first thing I thought [about the Bullpen] is that it’s awesome that the way they drew the line included the Durty Bull and Sherlocks,” he says. “This is a great way to get people into the gallery.”
Lauren Elmore owns MODE Consignment on West Main Street, near Brightleaf Square. She’s seen foot traffic quiet since the pandemic and feels optimistic about the consumer dimension that the social district may add.
“We’ve been downtown for 12 years and definitely seen so many highs and lows, and not even just from the pandemic,” Elmore says. “[DDI] has been such an awesome advocate for all the businesses downtown, and the city council listened. I’m excited about it.”
“We do host ‘sip and shops’ every so often for our customers just in the store,” she adds. “So we have no problem when people come in and drink responsibly and have a good time with their girlfriends or if they’re on a date or whatever, and just shop and sip. It’s always more fun with an adult beverage.”
Until recently, North Carolina still had one dry county—Graham, which borders Nantahala National Forest, voted to permit the sales of wine and beer (hard liquor was excluded from the vote) in November 2021—and the implementation of social districts has raised concerns that alcohol-enhanced development might foster irresponsible drinking or trails of plastic cups on the streets, or force business owners to act as bouncers.
Durham’s ordinance does state that business owners can be “punished with civil penalties of $250 per day, maxing out at $2,000.” It’s not entirely clear what infractions might incur penalties. Senior Assistant City Attorney Aarin Miles, who was involved in drafting the ordinance, did not respond to INDY requests for clarification.
Thompson says DDI is working with Don’t Waste Durham to find environmentally friendly alternatives to the plastic cups, though her response to questions about businesses potentially having to field off unwanted drinkers is less reassuring.
“I don’t see it as being a big concern, especially with our clearly marked stickers and window clings,” she says. “I think 99 percent of the people visiting and partaking in this, when they see a sign that says ‘no outside drinks allowed,’ I don’t think they will push that. And then if they do happen to miss it and walk in and they’re asked to leave, they’ll leave.”
One week into the Bullpen, it’s hard to say if this is an overly optimistic read on human behavior, but the local business owners I spoke with, at least, don’t seem too worried.
“If someone wants to drink a beer downtown and sit, I think that’s cool,” Umstead says. “I don’t think people are going to go out and get trashed.”
On Saturday night at Main Street’s Beyu Caffe, the doors are propped open as jazz music from a live band pours out onto the street. Several people holding Bullpen plastic cups post up outside, listening. Beyu, legendary in past years for its live music program, hasn’t featured performances in three years; this winter, it’s returning with a pop-up series.
There’s more music a couple of blocks farther into town at the CCB Plaza, where a large crowd gathers for the annual holiday tree lighting, alongside performances by G Yamazawa, House of Coxx, and an NC Central University step team. This is the city’s dual holiday event and official Bullpen launch, of course, so it’s not exactly representative of a typical weekend crowd. Still, downtown events are frequent in Durham, particularly during the summer, and it’s easy to see how outdoor imbibing might add some extra pizzazz (and increase step counts) between stops.
There are other signs of life on Main Street: In November, Israel Lazaro and Robert Montemayor began selling tacos from a pop-up taqueria, Lady Bird Tacos, in front of Rubies and Remedy Room (Montemayor is a co-owner of both bars and uses the kitchen at Remedy Room). The pair say they saw a market for street and late-night food downtown, which can be hard to come by (Queeny’s is currently one of the only late-night options in downtown Durham). Lady Bird serves Austin, Texas–style breakfast tacos to the morning office crowd—on a recent Tuesday, the Lady Bird line trailed down the block—but Montemayor says the pair also expects to start serving LA-style street tacos at night, starting December 13.
“At nightime, we will have more of a traditional al pastor taco with an actual upright spit,” says Lazaro, who is from California. “We’re gonna have birria tacos as well. Very traditional to the northern part of Mexico where they come from, and we’re gonna have tinga tacos as well.”
Melton says that when Raleigh’s pilot program hits six months in January, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance will have clearer data about how consumers and business owners feel and whether the program drives revenue. From there, they’ll assess next steps.
“I’m definitely interested in perhaps expanding our total district,” Melton says. “I don’t think we would do all of our downtown; I don’t think there’s any appetite to put the social district on Glenwood South, but more of the Warehouse District could be included. Other parts of the city had also expressed interest in being included, too.”
Durham’s social district, on the other hand, bypassed a test period and has committed full throttle to the initiative.
“We did not think it was fair given that we were coming out of a pandemic to select just one area, or do a pilot, and we were like, ‘We’ll go full in,’” says Thompson. “We decided we would include the entire downtown under our request to the city to create a social district. So it is a large district, but it is very walkable. This just kind of fits in with what our downtown has always been.”
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