“It’s pretty invisible”: A year after its introduction, the Bullpen has mild impact

Signs advertising the Bullpen are pictured in the Durham Food Hall. (Photo by Hannah Collett.)

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

By Hannah Collett

When Downtown Durham Inc. first introduced the idea of creating an alcohol social district in town, many were concerned about various safety issues but the business case to support the change swayed the decision.

In the 16 months since the Bullpen was implemented, “It’s been completely benign,” said Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero.

Initially, there were concerns about the rowdiness of social district patrons, and some businesses thought they might have to increase security personnel.

Still, Caballero said helping local businesses was a big factor in the creation of the Bullpen.

“That’s why the enabling legislation was passed at the state level because I think there were lots of folks advocating for some support. And this was an idea that could help, you know, keep foot track traffic up downtown,” Caballero said.

When the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 211 in 2021 allowing local municipalities to create social alcohol districts – a type of open container law – it was notable because the state has a history of maintaining strict alcohol laws.

This law made it possible for districts like the Bullpen, which designate spaces where responsible alcohol consumption could bolster local businesses and create a space for connection between consumers. A social alcohol district is an area in which consumers can purchase alcohol from participating restaurants and bars and carry their drinks openly.

Once the bill passed, Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI) —  a nonprofit that aims to “enhance the environment, economy and vitality of downtown Durham” — created a plan for the Bullpen and pitched it to Durham City Council that same year. Caballero confirmed that DDI proposed the policy initiative and now manages the social district.

Lucinda Rosen, a former bartender at West End Wine Bar and West End Billiards, said she helped with the transition as the businesses moved to take advantage of the new program.

“There was a lot of stress before the implementation among bar management, over just, like, I mean, change,” Rosen said.

One of the biggest concerns at her bars was having to hire additional security in case patrons potentially became too rowdy.

The rowdiness hasn’t happened, although Rosen attributes the calm to a lack of consumer use.

“There was a lot of hype, but I feel like very few people use this. It ends after 10 p.m., to my knowledge, so that’s pretty early,” said Rosen who added that she’s rarely seen customers bringing in drinks from other bars even though it is now permitted.

She said conceivably people with more free time might utilize the option to open-carry cocktails and walk around the area. Ultimately, though, “I really would say it’s, it’s pretty invisible to me.”

Some local students and residents have heard of and used the program, to mild results. Talking to over 15 patrons on the street one Sunday, during peak Bullpen hours, many said that they had never used the option — and those who had reported back lukewarm opinions.

Durham resident Hunter Quigley has walked around the Bullpen with an open container a few times but said the area is mostly only full of other bars.

“The main reason I use it is to finish a drink on the go when walking to the next bar. There’s not much to walk around and actually see in downtown Durham,” Quigley said. “The hours also run from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and I’m usually out with friends after that, so I don’t use it much.”

Clare Sobolewski, a senior at Duke University, said she had never heard of the Bullpen until a few months ago.

“I walk downtown a lot, and one day I saw one of the advertising stickers on a door. It seems interesting, but, like, none of my friends had heard of it either,” Sobolewski said. She thought that it might be because the Bullpen isn’t intended for a college-age demographic.

Bars within the bounds of the Bullpen that haven’t opted into the program also said they don’t feel much of a difference.

Mike Bourquin, the owner of 106 Main, said he’ll be switching to include his bar in the Bullpen this spring, but hasn’t come across any other establishments feeling a strong impact on their business.

“It seems like it’s a good thing, although I haven’t heard anything one way or the other of places doing it being like, ‘Oh, it’s awesome,’ or not doing it and being like, ‘Oh, we really should,’” Bourquin said.

Leslie Matista, co-owner of The Velvet Hippo, said she likes the Bullpen, even if it isn’t used very often in her business. The Velvet Hippo is opted into the social district and Matista has also used it personally.

“I think [the concept] is cute. Why not? I think we need to move away just in general from the, you know, wildly different Bible Belt laws versus New York, D.C., Atlanta — places that are just not being so crazy about alcohol [laws],” Matista said.

Matista cited alcohol sales as a large part of North Carolina commerce and said introducing a bill allowing businesses to hold happy hours would be another similar way to help local restaurants and bars.

“I think that would be great,” Matista said. “I mean, you’d be encouraging business at a time that’s not normally busy.”

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