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Should wine, beer be sold at Durham senior center? Some leaders think so.

Durham Center for Senior Life’s building is owned by the county, and under current policy cannot serve alcohol. Some commissioners think that the center could benefit from being able to rent it out as an event space that can serve wine and beer at events like weddings.
Durham Center for Senior Life’s building is owned by the county, and under current policy cannot serve alcohol. Some commissioners think that the center could benefit from being able to rent it out as an event space that can serve wine and beer at events like weddings. vbridges@newsobserver.com

Two new restaurants are expected to open in the ground floor of a county-owned building in downtown Durham, but leaders need to make an exception to allow them to sell alcohol. Right now, alcohol sales are not allowed in properties owned by the county.

Some county commissioners would like that to change — and not just for those restaurants.

Durham County Administration Building II, which recently reopened after being renovated from the old courthouse into new offices, has space for two restaurants on East Main Street. The county is working with The Institute to recruit minority-owned and women-owned businesses to the space. Many restaurants serve alcohol as well as food, hence the need for an exception.

Commissioners discussed this week what other buildings the county owns that also should be allowed to serve alcohol, such as the Center for Senior Life and the Durham County Stadium.

Not allowing alcohol in county-owned buildings “has been an issue for Senior Life,” said Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs.

The Center for Senior Life on Rigsbee Avenue downtown is a nonprofit with programming on weekdays only. Jacobs said they should be able to rent it out on weekends for events that may serve wine and beer.

County Manager Wendell Davis told Jacobs the exception for County Administration Building II is about “accommodating commercial clients across the street — restaurants.”

Davis said the issue has come up before about allowing alcohol in other county-owned buildings such as the Center for Senior Life.

“Certain liability concerns were raised, and we made a conscious decision not to go down that path,” he said. “It’s not a fair comparison: county-owned versus lease arrangement for these entities to provide alcohol.”

Jacobs and Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said they’d like the policy examined.

“We co-own the convention center with the city, and of course alcohol is served there,” Reckhow said. “The city owns DPAC, alcohol is served there.”

Reckhow said Senior Life events may have gotten better attendance if wine and beer was allowed.

“I don’t see why we can’t look at it,” she said.

Jacobs agreed.

“People are looking for affordable places to have personal events. It’s a beautiful facility, [but] closed and empty on the weekends,” Jacobs said. “People have been interested in renting the space.”

She said if the event is a wedding, not being able to have beer and wine there is a barrier to rentals.

County Attorney Lowell Siler agreed to take another look at the policy. He said the county has also gotten requests for wine at fundraising events at other county-owned buildings, such as the Durham County Main Library downtown.

Commissioner James Hill said Durham County Stadium is another place they could consider allowing alcohol. He thinks the county lost hosting a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship in part because of not serving beer. CIAA includes several HBCUs.

County staff will report back to commissioners about the issue at a future meeting.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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