Sip n’ Stroll: Social District Debut


What do drinks to go mean for downtown businesses?

By Dezarae Churchill

New Orleans is most iconically known for its boisterous bands and late-night parties. Visitors are encouraged to engage in nightlife and are often seen trekking up the infamous Bourbon Street with a cocktail in hand.

For the majority of other U.S. cities, this is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Until Aug. 15, that was true for Raleigh.

Earlier in the summer, the Raleigh City Council approved a new “social district” that will allow patrons 21 years of age and older to purchase to-go alcoholic beverages from participating bars and restaurants and walk through the designated district between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. 

Michael Bruce, a WPU political science senior, is a bartender at Lucky B’s and lives in downtown Raleigh. He believes the program will be beneficial to downtown bars and restaurants and is excited for growth within the city.

“It is a good idea to bring business back to that side of town,” said Bruce. “In other cities, like New Orleans, and other various cities like Vegas, you can walk up and down the strip with an open container. So if other cities can do it, why can’t we?”

With Fayetteville St. at the center, the district expands from Morgan Street to Shaw University, all the way to the Warehouse District and Nash Square. (A full map of the social district can be found here.) More than 65 businesses have opted into the district.

Moore Square and Nash Square parks are not included in the district; city law still prohibits alcohol consumption in public parks.

“If we are mature enough to walk around with a beverage, let us, if we break the law, penalize us for it,” said Bruce.

All alcohol, including beer and wine, must be in recyclable cups with special stickers that identify the bar or restaurant where the drink was purchased and the date and time of purchase. However, they are not required to label the contents of the cup.

Each downtown business will have a sticker near its entrance to alert the public of their participation in the district. Green stickers indicate the restaurant or bar will sell you a beverage, blue stickers indicate outside beverages are welcome, and orange stickers indicate alcoholic beverages are not permitted on their premises. It is at the bar’s discretion if they allow the consumption of outside beverages in their establishment.

Eugena Treadwell, WPU assistant professor of communication, was a corporate lawyer before becoming a professor, and is optimistic about the social district. She believes the plans for the social district were well thought out and strategic. With success in other NC cities, she believes the key to getting ahead of potential problems is to study how other cities have handled issues.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the city did their research and that the economic boost that they’re anticipating is significant enough, because, in order to do this, they had to update their alcohol laws that hadn’t been updated since the 1900s,” said Treadwell.

There may still be gray areas the city needs to figure out. The balance between progressive hospitality and protecting local businesses may present a challenge.

North Carolina has dram shop laws in place, which means the liability of overserving a guest by giving them too many drinks falls on to the last person to serve them alcohol. With the ability to walk from one place to the next with an alcoholic beverage, it could become very difficult to know if a person is intoxicated. 

“How people are going to use the social district is going to depend on what it looks like in terms of liability for bartenders,” said Treadwell. “And so it’s going to be interesting to see what the liability is in Raleigh.”

While many patrons are excited about the new ‘Sip and Stroll Downtown’, and the city’s effort to revitalize downtown Raleigh, this could cause discord between the city and local bars.

Whiskey Kitchen’s general manager, Aaron Lambert, believes the new district creates a stage for negative guest interactions before they step foot inside the establishment by asking guests to throw away the drinks they purchased at another bar in order to come into theirs.

This could create upset customers, and potential hostility between restaurant staff and customers who have been drinking. He feels it is unfair that the Raleigh hospitality industry is now responsible for policing the patrons of the city.

Whiskey Kitchen does not allow outside beverages to be consumed on their property and asks all patrons to finish their drinks and dispose of them before entering the building. 

“I don’t have particular faith in the city at being able to manage this correctly,” said Lambert. “The rules are poorly thought out, poorly communicated, and opaque at best.”

There is potential for bars to misjudge a guest’s alcohol consumption if they finish a cocktail outside moments before ordering another. Service industry workers will be called upon to be more diligent, and many assume there will be a higher presence of Alcohol Law Enforcement within the district.

Caleb Husmann, WPU assistant professor of political science, is willing to try any new program that brings business back to downtown and encourages the return of organic social interactions.

“I think the social capital that goes along with people interacting, having fun, and just being together declined massively during COVID, and anything we can do to get it back to where it was, or even better, unless it’s super dangerous, I’m on board with, ” said Husmann. “The decline of social capital can be a huge problem throughout the country, and throughout the world.”

While Raleigh continues ahead with ambitious expansion plans, many residents are concerned about the lack of public transportation available around the city.

The goal of the social district is to bring more patrons to Raleigh and increase revenue inside the parameters of the district. Many Raleigh residents are excited to be one of the first cities to try a social district and are hopeful this will create a positive impact on the city.

This is a trial period for a social district in Downtown Raleigh, and the city is eager to hear feedback from those participating. If you would like to have a say in this district or the expansion of others, fill out the city’s feedback form. 

A to-go drink at Whiskey Kitchen near Nash Square bears the label required of all drinks that will be taken outside of the establishments where they were bought.  New rules allowing pedestrians to have alcoholic beverages in certain areas of downtown took effect Aug. 15. Photo by Dezarae Churchill