By Dave Russell
For just over three months now folks have enjoyed the freedom to walk the downtown Sylva area and Bridge Park with an open alcoholic beverage in hand.
The Sylva Town Board on Feb. 10 held a public hearing and voted to approve the downtown social district, allowing imbibers to walk in a designated area carrying drinks bought from licensed establishments in the district.
A downtown chicken controversy and the social district essentially occupied about three hours of the 3 and 1/2 hour meeting.
During public comment on the proposal, warnings were dire.
Fears of 2,000 Western Carolina University students showing up to run wild, body waste in every corner and looting were expressed. The social district debuted at Sylva’s Greening Up the Mountains on April 23.
Many festival-goers purchased the stainless steel cups for $10 each, had it filled at one of nine bars or breweries downtown, and enjoyed the art, food and music on a beautiful day, Main Street Economic Development Director Bernadette Peters said at the time.
Town leaders will meet to examine the district soon.
“We have a town board meeting on Sept. 8 that will include a police incident report on the six-month test period, and any potential changes we need to make to the plan or the ordinance,” Peters said last week. “It won’t be the kind of public hearing we had when we initially voted on the ordinance since we are not voting to add more hours than the original.”
The state recently provided clarification and changes to the rules, none of which impact Sylva except for signage requirements, she said.
How many people are enjoying walking the town with a drink in hand is difficult to determine.
“It’s a challenge to gauge participation other than the number of cups we have sold,” Peters said. “That only accounts for the initial beverage.”
One concern expressed at the Feb. 10 meeting was adding a burden to the police department, which was short-staffed at the time.
“We have not experienced any noticeable increase in problems downtown related to alcohol or the social district,” Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton said last week. “When we get to the six-month mark, we are planning to pull the statistics for the public.”
At the Feb. 10 meeting, town board member Mary Gelbaugh expressed her dissent for the social district, citing openings in the police department, litter and a lack of trust in people to do the right thing.
She cast a nay vote that night, but has warmed up to the district.
“Initially I was concerned about the general public who may not be drinkers and how they would respond to those drinking openly in front of them in public spaces, such as Concerts on the Creek,” she said. “After attending several concerts this season I feel like my concerns overall have subsided and those choosing to participate in the social district have been responsible and respectful.”
Ben Guiney also voted against the measure.
“I am really pleased with how the social district has been implemented, and it seems like a real plus for the town,” he said Monday. “My concerns that drove me to vote against it were primarily generating more plastic cup garbage. The stainless steel cup has been outstanding and I use mine all the time. I am looking forward to when it expands to more hours. It is also nice to see many of the concerns that others had with things like urine and feces and looting never materialized.”
Others remain opposed.
John Wermuth, owner of antique and curio shop End of Main, has never supported the idea.
A sign at the door of his store advises customers can sip coffee while browsing, but no food or other beverages are allowed.
“I’ve had to chase people out,” he said. “Most have been nice about it, but one or two have been like ‘Why? We’re allowed to do this.’ Most understand that coming into an antique shop and putting a drink on a table or spilling a drink could cause damage.”
Wermuth has not seen very many people walking the street with the special aluminum cups, he said.
“Fall is coming, when we get the majority of our tourist visitors, so we will see what happens then,” he said. “I don’t think it is doing anything for downtown businesses. A big concern among business owners is what’s going to happen when WCU starts up again?”
Wermuth doesn’t mind the district open for street festivals like Greening Up, he said.
The district has not drawn much attention outside of Jackson County.
“I have not had anyone ask me about it,” said Julie Donaldson, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “None of our staff have been asked either. We do have a sign on our porch about the Social District, but have not had any inquiries so far.”
The Tourism Development Authority does not use it as a selling point for the county.
“We don’t promote the social district on any materials or our website,” TDA Director Nick Breedlove said.