Lay of the Land

In today's fast-paced world, urban spaces are constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of their communities. One such innovative approach that is rapidly gaining traction throughout North Carolina is the emergence of social districts, designed to breathe new life into downtown areas. These vibrant, pedestrian-friendly spaces allow residents and visitors alike to come together and enjoy the unique offerings of local businesses, all while fostering a sense of connection and belonging.

While many smaller cities throughout the state are using these districts to help boost economic growth, here in the Triangle, downtown Durham and downtown Raleigh are leading the way in capitalizing on this post-pandemic trend. To find out what this looks like in Durham, we spoke with Nicole Thompson, President and CEO of Downtown Durham, Inc. (DDI). We also spoke with Pickett Sprouse commercial real estate and restaurant broker as well as former Triangle restaurateur Tyler Huntington to get his perspective.

Q&A with Nicole Thompson

Nicole Thompson

Q: What is a social district?

A: In September 2021, the North Carolina General Assembly voted that cities and towns in North Carolina could create their own walkable drinking district with open cups of alcoholic beverages: a social district. These are defined areas in which a person may consume an alcoholic beverage sold by an ABC permittee that is located within the social district. The local government sets the days and hours for the district.

Q: How does a social district benefit businesses?

A: A social district draws more people into the downtown area and encourages them to stay longer, walk around, and explore the unique businesses and outdoor spaces. In addition, it encourages individuals to visit downtown areas and businesses (such as restaurants, bars, and stores) they may not have explored before. All of this means more customers having an enjoyable time, spending money, and getting to know local businesses and their community better.

Social districts also draw more businesses to the area who are interested in being a part of a community that is lively and vibrant due to the ability to sell alcoholic beverages, or in the case of establishments without an ABC license, to welcome alcoholic beverages into their store.

Q: When did Durham’s social district launch and what is it called?

A: The Bullpen is downtown Durham’s social district, which allows people to purchase alcoholic drinks from ABC permittees in a designated cup and walk around outside within a defined area. The Bullpen went into effect on December 1, 2022.

Q: What is DDI’s role with the social district?

A: DDI is the entity that worked to establish a social district, the Bullpen, in downtown Durham. With input from the downtown business community, DDI determined the district boundaries, hours, and guidelines and worked with the city to establish one of NC’s largest social districts. With the launch of the Bullpen, DDI is doing the following:

  • Marketing and branding the district.
  • Providing uniform signage to businesses, both ABC permittees and non-permittees, that are located within the Bullpen, to identify participation in the district.
  • Providing communications and information to businesses within the Bullpen about the rules and regulations of the district. This includes providing businesses with the specifications on the required open container cups used within the Bullpen. DDI serves as the liaison between the City and the businesses located within the Bullpen.
  • Maintaining the Bullpen website.
  • Maintaining a list of businesses that have voluntarily opted into participating in the Bullpen and those that have not.
  • Coordinating any additional trash or debris pick up within the social district.

Q: What are the boundaries for the Bullpen and how many businesses are participating at this point?

A: Roughly 170 businesses are selling beverages to be taken out into the district or allowing beverages inside. You can see the map of the boundaries here.

Q: How does the Bullpen work and how do people know which businesses are participating?

A: The Bullpen operates from 11am - 10pm seven days a week. Window clings are displayed at each business to indicate their participation in the Bullpen. They say either ORDER HERE, DRINKS WELCOME or OUTSIDE DRINKS NOT PERMITTED. Businesses are also listed on the Bullpen website. If a business is not listed on our site and/or doesn’t have a window cling, it should be assumed that customers can neither order nor enter with a to-go drink at the establishment.

Q: Has the social district seemed to be accomplishing its goals?

A: I would say yes. It was started in December, so it was a little slow out of the gate, but we are hearing good feedback from businesses. Everyone is excited to see what summer and warmer and longer days will bring. We anticipate much more activity.

Q&A with Tyler Huntington

Tyler Huntington

Q: Do social districts add appeal for hospitality businesses considering where to locate their business?

A: I think in general, yes, they do. For more high-end dining, there may not be as much appeal because I don't know how much they would actually benefit from this type of district, except in the way that it attracts more people to come down to that area.

So, in terms of people floating from one bar to another or one restaurant to another, I think there are certain concepts that it might not make as much of a difference for them. But I don't think it's a deterrent, and I think no matter what, it increases the visibility and desirability of that area.

Q: Why do you feel like social districts are appealing for businesses?

A: From a former operator’s standpoint being part of a social district would be appealing to me. When we were at American Tobacco, the ability for people to move about outside was a bonus for us. Whereas, in some of the other locations, particularly Carrboro where people couldn't leave with a beverage or even just stand out front on the sidewalk when we had the garage doors open, it was a potential problem. We definitely would have benefited from people being able to move around the town a little bit more.

Q: When you are talking with a hospitality business potentially wanting to locate in downtown Durham, what role does the social district play in that conversation?

A: In terms of people that are expressing interest in that area, the social district is definitely a plus. I use it as a promotional tool, and it seems like something that people would very much like to be a part of. It's something that I think is a bonus. It's not going to determine whether a business decides to open in downtown Durham, but it certainly adds to the picture of why it’s such a good location.

How to Ask Us About a Commercial Real Estate Trend

If you have a question about a commercial real estate trend that you’ve been seeing, we’d love to hear from you! Simply email, and we’ll get to your topic as soon as we can.