Downtown Raleigh Alliance launched extensive research on Social Districts in spring 2022 to capture the feedback of downtown businesses, residents, and the overall community for implementation in Downtown Raleigh. The Social District Pilot Program launched in August of 2022, providing a designated area for the alcoholic beverage consumption purchased from participating establishments. The district allows patrons to "sip and stroll" with their drink purchased from a participating business within the footprint during specific hours.
As a follow up to measure success and provide feedback to Raleigh City Council on this pilot, DRA recently conducted three (3) online survey tools, resident & business feedback sessions and conducted peer city research. Given strong interest in the program, our community survey received 921 responses with over a third of respondents as downtown residents and residents who live within the social district. In addition to the online surveys, dedicated business and resident feedback sessions were held to facilitate in-depth conversations.
One of the key findings of the research was that the Social District has increased sales and led to new sales that would not otherwise have occurred. The program has been well-received by business owners and patrons, with very few minor issues of misuse and no misbehavior reported. Here are some other findings:
- Strong Support for Social District: 77% believe the district has had a positive/very positive impact and 90% support or strongly support the district.
- Social District does not increase litter and more trash & recycling receptacles should be installed in the district
- Strong interest in use of sustainable cups and allowing social district drinks in special events that sell alcohol
- Strong interest in expansion of boundaries
- Social District has not led to bad behavior downtown and a neutral response on need to rebrand
Areas of Improvement
The feedback sessions also revealed some areas of improvement that could be made to the Social District:
- The website is not user-friendly for finding participating businesses
- The signage on businesses identifying them as participants is small, difficult to find, and inconsistently displayed
- Street pole signage is temporary-looking and needs to be updated
- The temporary "x-frame" waste receptacles (pictured) should be replaced with permanent trash and recycling receptacles
- Writing the time and date on the cups added time for staff, and some businesses would like the option for district-branded cups
- Concerns raised about the conflict with special events' ability to sell and shut off business sales.
- Businesses appreciated being able to pick their suppliers for cups and stickers.
- Interest in expanding the program's hours modestly to align with brunch (10am) and some interest in extending the program until 11 pm, but opinions varied among stakeholders.
Using these results and additional research, DRA recommended: expansion of boundaries, an additional hour of operation, mandating use of recyclable cups, addition of solid waste and recycling receptacles, more permanent and durable signage, option for use of a branded cup (in addition to stickers), a re-designed logo, adjusting the ability for Special Events to sell into district while simultaneously suspending business sales, and for DRA to take on hosting the webpage and the business participant signage with a QR code.
New Social District Changes Approved by City Council
In the May 16th meeting of Raleigh City Council, the Council heard recommendations from DRA and City staff and adopted the following changes to be effective August 15th, 2023:
- Expansion of boundaries to include the rest of the Warehouse District (but not include Parks at this time)
- Additional of hour of operation to 10am with hours to be 10am-10pm, 7 days a week
- Add permanent signage on street poles
- Add permanent trash & recycling receptacles
- Make changes to Social District webpage and business signage
Inclusion of downtown parks was a part of the community feedback we shared and was discussed during the May 16th City Council meeting. At this time, City of Raleigh chose not to include parks in this expansion of the district for several reasons articulated in that meeting. For more context, the full presentation and Raleigh City Council discussion on the topic can be viewed and listened to as part of the May 16th Council meeting available on the City of Raleigh website. We remain very enthusiastic about this expansion and other changes made to the program, as well as continuing a program that is strongly supported by our community.
In summary, the Social District Pilot Program has had a positive impact on Downtown Raleigh, leading to increased sales and new business opportunities. DRA’s research highlights both the successes and details opportunities for improvement to ensure this tool is maximized. We are excited about how the district might evolve given these new changes, providing an even more positive experience for businesses, residents, and visitors alike in downtown.