Alcohol served in social districts is latest downtown trend in NC’s Border Belt 

By Kerria Weaver

Like the rest of North Carolina, Scotland County has a complicated history with alcohol, from bootleggers who made moonshine to members of the old Temperance Hall who declared alcohol the work of the devil. 

Fast forward more than a century, and the Scotland County town of Laurinburg has joined the list of cities and towns in the state to create a downtown “social district” – a designated area where people 21 and older can carry alcoholic drinks served within the district as they mingle, shop and explore the community. 

Laurinburg is the second city in the Border Belt region of Scotland, Robeson, Columbus and Bladen counties to create a social district. Whiteville made the move in September in an effort to bring more people downtown. 

In Laurinburg, efforts have been underway for years to create a lively downtown district with locally owned restaurants and retail stores. The Railroad Bar & Grill opened a year ago in a century-old building on Main Street. 

When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper clarified a state law in July to include guidance on social districts, major cities like Charlotte and Raleigh quickly got on board. Smaller towns are also hopping on the trend, and nearly 20 municipalities now have social districts, according to the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association.  

Cory Hughes, executive director of the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, said the town waited about a year before taking action. 

“We looked at other communities around the state and saw how they were taking advantage of this social district opportunity,” Hughes said. “We felt the social district could benefit in attracting people downtown and building commerce in the downtown area.” 

Downtown Whiteville’s social district is a success so far, said Robert Lewis, the town’s planning director. 

“I’ve got some friends that are from or lived in Whiteville at some point of their life when they were younger. Over the holidays they visited and would take pictures with the cups enjoying the social district,” Lewis said. 

But some people spoke out against a social district in Whiteville before the town council voted 5-1 to approve it. 

“We are disappointed that nobody cared enough to speak to all of the existing businesses for something that really affects us,” Lori Collins of Collier’s Jewelers told the Border Belt Independent this week. 

Hughes said some people might be concerned about Laurinburg’s new social district, but state regulations are meant to ensure safety. 

Social districts can operate from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon to 2 p.m. on Sundays. In cities that allow earlier Sunday alcohol sales, including Whiteville, social districts can begin at 10 a.m. 

Alcoholic drinks in social districts must be sold in containers that identify the seller and contain a special logo designating the district. 

Restaurants, retailers and other businesses within the districts can choose not to participate in the program. 

“I think it’s been set up in a very fair and responsible way,” Hughes said. “If a store does not want to partake in the event, they simply have a sticker or decal stating they are not part of the social district, so everybody can opt in or out.”

Before implementing Laurinburg’s social district, which spans several blocks of Main Street and beyond, Hughes said officials talked to local police and business owners. 

“This was not simply unveiled,” he said. “A lot of due diligence was done to ensure we were planning this the right way.” 

Laurinburg Mayor Jim Willis said Railroad Bar & Grill is the only restaurant in the district that serves alcohol. But the town hopes to attract new businesses.   

“Alcohol in general is not controversial in 2023 like it may have been 20 or 30 years ago,” Willis said. 

Laurinburg is one of several North Carolina communities that now have social districts to draw people downtown.
Photo by Les High