In February, the owners of Durham restaurant COPA spearheaded a weekly “small plates crawl” in the downtown district, rallying about a dozen other restaurants to join them in offering crawl-exclusive menu items—a cup of chili, say, or a plate of pork croquetas—on Thursday nights. 

The crawl, which launched shortly after the peak of the omicron variant surge, was intended to boost business traffic for downtown restaurants, all of whom had suffered severe financial losses due to the pandemic.

While the initiative was successful for a few months, by mid-summer, it had mostly fizzled out. Faced with thousands of dollars—and in some cases, over one million dollars—in debt, restaurant owners found themselves wondering if bustling foot traffic would ever return to downtown Durham.

Now, finally, they think they might have a solution—but they’re going to need the city’s help to see it through.

At the Durham city council’s work session yesterday, nearly 20 small business owners voiced their support for a new downtown “social district” that would allow people to drink alcoholic beverages—sold by local purveyors in labeled plastic to-go cups—while they walk or shop in a designated area.

Among the speakers was Roberto Copa Matos, chef and co-owner of COPA.

“Compared to 2019, COPA has seen its income reduced by half, and our debt has increased significantly in the past three years,” Matos said, adding that COPA lost more than $10,000 in revenue last month. “I support the social district initiative as an answer to many of the problems that small businesses are facing today.”

Social districts have been legal in North Carolina since 2021, when state legislators passed a bill that modernized some of the state’s archaic liquor laws. Since then, a number of social districts have popped up in cities and towns around the state, including Raleigh, which implemented its own downtown “sip-and-stroll” zone in August. 

At the work session, Durham restaurant owners said that a social district would not only help them to recover pandemic-era losses in the short-term, but also serve as a solution to a more permanent issue: the absence of employee-driven traffic.

“We see a little bit of trickling in through the lunchtime hours on weekdays, but it very quickly tapers off,” said Durham Food Hall owner Adair Mueller. “There are no happy hours, no after-work drinks happening.”

By giving people a reason to spend more time downtown, a social district would help fill the void left by the massive shift to remote working, Mueller said.

A handful of non-restaurant business owners also offered their support, telling the council that a social district would attract more customers to their gift shops, art galleries, and fitness centers.

After the public comment session, a spokesperson from the Parks and Recreation Department laid out the nuts and bolts of the proposed district, which he dubbed “The Bullpen.”

The district would include all of downtown Durham, with clear signage that indicates where boundaries begin and end. Restaurants and bars would be able to decide the extent of their participation—if they want to sell their own to-go drinks but don’t want customers to bring in outside beverages from other businesses in the district, that’s fine—and non-food businesses would also be able to dictate whether customers can bring alcoholic drinks into their buildings.

If owners opt-in, their windows will be marked with stickers.

Council members were largely enthusiastic about the idea of a social district—it would align with Durham’s vibrant, community-centered culture and strengthen the local economy, they said—though they did share a few concerns.

“The district itself is problematic to me because it’s limited to just downtown, so only downtown [businesses] benefit,” said council member DeDreana Freeman. “That’s been an issue over and over again for folks who’ve been in business in [other areas of] our city.”

Cities are allowed to have more than one district, so this imbalance could potentially be addressed in the future. Council member Mark Anthony Middleton agreed that neighborhoods should be given the option to implement their own social districts, but said that “cities have different flavors in different areas.”

“I think folks want to come to Hayti to reflect on the majesty of our past and our economic achievements, moreso than walk down Fayetteville Street with drinks in their hand,” Middleton said.

Council member Jillian Johnson noted that the district will cause disparities in the way open container laws are enforced across the city, and said she wants to avoid “creating two Durhams, where there’s this area of downtown where everyone can walk around and drink freely, but if you’re poor and you’re Black and you’re in East Durham and you’ve got an open container, then the police are gonna come for you.”

Durham police chief Patrice Andrews said this shouldn’t be an issue. 

Durham police officers only enforce open container laws when there is also “some kind of event that occurs that would spark a 911 call,” Andrews said, “and most of the time, the response is, ‘You’re gonna have to move along’ or ‘Can we find a ride for you’ or ‘You’re gonna have to leave the establishment,’ rather than citing for any open container violations.”

Based on the widespread support shown by council members, the proposal will likely be approved at the council’s next meeting on October 17, with the downtown district going into effect on December 1.

If all goes according to plan, Durhamites will do their holiday shopping on the streets of downtown this year, warm cups of boozy hot chocolate in hand.

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