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Franklin approves social district

The social district in Franklin will run along Main Street from town hall to Lazy Hiker Brewing. File photo The social district in Franklin will run along Main Street from town hall to Lazy Hiker Brewing. File photo

The Town of Franklin will be the latest municipality in North Carolina to implement a social district after the town council unanimously voted to adopt the ordinance during its first meeting of the new year. 

“The Town Council was aware that there could be support for, and opposition to, the social district and are knowingly moving forward to provide new experiences and opportunities for citizens and visitors to Franklin,” said Town Manager Amie Owens in a press release.  

A social district is a designated area where people can legally consume alcoholic beverages. Social districts are regulated by the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and were approved by the legislature in 2021. Proponents of social districts believe they help contribute to economic development by attracting citizens and visitors to downtown areas which increases foot traffic and provides new revenue opportunities for restaurants and retail businesses.

The municipality in which a social district is located must display clear signage that indicates the geographical area of the district, including entry and exit points. It must also design branded cups that are permitted outdoors and include the language “Drink Responsibly — Be 21.”

There are currently 38 municipalities that have social districts in the state with Sylva  being the closest one to Franklin.

Franklin has been considering the social district since the town council held its retreat in February of last year. Since that time, the town has garnered public input and received generally positive feedback from both residents and local businesses.

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Some opposition to the social district came from county commissioners in November when they decided not to allow the town to use county property in the social district. The town had wanted to include the brick area adjacent to the courthouse, as well as both Gazebo and Clock Tower squares in the district. Both squares are natural connectors from Iotla and Phillips streets and offer multiple seating options.

Because the town leases the gazebo from the county and the lease agreement states that alcohol consumption is not allowed on the property, the town needed to get county approval to amend the lease. Additionally, Clock Tower Square is county property and the county needed to approve its use in the social district.

However, when Town Manager Amie Owens and Councilman David Culpepper made a presentation to the county commission in November to request use of the properties, the item was tabled due to a lack of motion from any commissioner. Commissioners did not discuss the social district or the use of county property.

The squares downtown will remain alcohol-free at all times and individuals who are observed taking their marked cups into these areas will be subject to fines.

Some opponents of social districts cite a concern for increased crime or public intoxication as reasons not to implement the concept. However, when Sylva approved the ordinance for a social district in February 2022, the town started with a test period during which the social district was limited to weekends. During this time the town studied both the economic impact of the social district as well as its effects on policing and incident reports in the downtown area.

After six months of this limited social district, Sylva officials found no increase in police calls, and expanded the hours of the social district to seven days per week.

“We’ve checked statistics for this time frame compared to last year’s same time frame and there’s no increase in police calls,” Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton told the Sylva Town Board at the time. “We checked everything, including traffic accidents in the district.” 

The Town of Franklin is working to develop a list of all businesses that will participate. There are six establishments downtown with ABC permits that would be able to utilize cups in the district — JR Chophouse, Gracious Plates, Outdoor 76, Las Margaritas, Motor Company Grill and Lazy Hiker. Other businesses may allow drinks to be carried into their stores and will be required to have signage that indicates participation in the social district.

There are still several steps that must be completed before the social district goes into effect and it is estimated that these steps will take at least three to four months. The town must register with the ABC Commission in Raleigh, design branded cups and put signage in place.

The town itself will pay for cups and signage and is currently soliciting quotes for the supplies. When Sylva implemented its social district, signage that marks the boundaries of the district cost about $3,500.

Once preparation is complete and the social district is approved by the ABC Commission, it will go into effect for all participating businesses. Hours of operation for the district will be noon until 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday. At all other times, unless a permit has been obtained for a special event, consumption of alcohol on sidewalks and in public areas is prohibited.

“Education will be provided to those ABC permitted establishments and merchants within the social district during the next few months to ensure that when the district does go live, all will be prepared,” said Owens. “An operations plan and educational materials are being developed and will be shared with the public online and available in hard copy as part of the implementation of the social district.” 

Special events that take place within the social district in the downtown area will have the option to request that the social district be suspended during the event by checking a box on the street closure application. Town Council will then consider that request at the same time as the street closure; no additional step is required.

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