WILMINGTON—On Sunday, Oct. 18, the Downtown Business Alliance’s (DBA) Downtown Alive program will come to a close in its current iteration. Since June 25, the program has allowed restaurants in the central business district to increase their customer base amid pandemic restrictions, thanks to downtown road closures and metered parking spaces, also referred to as “parklets,” becoming makeshift dining patios.
Downtown Alive will evolve into the parklet concept only beginning Monday, Oct. 19, which will continue through Sunday, Nov. 22.
“The roads will no longer be closed Thursday through Sunday,” DBA president Terry Espy said. “However, the parklets will remain open seven days a week for participating restaurants.”
So far 23 downtown restaurants will continue participating.
At the height of Downtown Alive, more than 30 eateries set up al fresco dining along Front, Chestnut, Grace, Princess and Dock streets. According to Espy, many participants saw their numbers increase—some even matched the books to summer 2019.
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the black,” Espy explained. “It just means the program really helped them at a time when limitations were in place because of Covid-19, and after having been shut down for months.”
Costs for Downtown Alive so far have been well over $150,000. A majority of the funds went to renting the orange and white barricades, which cost over $3,000 each weekend. Espy confirmed eight barricades were needed to close off streets.
“And that doesn’t include costs for security and ambassadors, which ran upward of $6,500 a weekend,” she said.
Money to fund Downtown Alive came from public and private sectors, including from the cancellation of the city’s Fourth of July fireworks, the Municipal Service District tax that downtown businesses pay into, the DBA, Wilmington Downtown Inc., and even the restaurants themselves.
Moving forward into the parklet concept, Espy will pull $5,000 from the leftover pool to continue the program.
“That will carry us through Nov. 2,” she said. An additional $5,600 is needed to carry through Nov. 22
As of Thursday, she was hoping the Municipal Service District tax would help counter some of the costs again. Money from the tax often goes toward downtown’s beautification. “A lot of good that will be if businesses board up,” Espy said.
She also has been reaching out for sponsors from distribution companies that benefit from the restaurant industry as a way to offset costs.
While restaurants did end up paying more than $13,000 to keep Downtown Alive going mid-summer, at this time Espy doesn’t want to tap back into their overstrained wallets again.
“Even $100 for some of them is too much right now,” she said.
Though restaurants have benefited from the program, bars haven’t had much luck after being allowed to reopen at only 30% outdoor capacity. Espy has been working with the city to include bars should Governor Roy Cooper announce an ease on restrictions soon.
At press time, a spokesperson for the city had not yet provided answers to questions regarding the downtown bars’ participation.
Currently, in phase 3, if bars operated a parklet, only around three people would be allowed per space, according to Espy. Should it extend to 50% capacity before Nov. 22, downtown pubs would benefit more, as they could serve more patrons.
“We feel their pain,” Espy said. “Restaurants have provided responsible service during the governor’s phases, and we think our downtown bars would, too, if allowed the opportunity to abide by the same regulations.”
The Future of Downtown Alive
Espy has begun outlining a plan to transition the parklet concept into a full-time venture after Nov. 22.
“The public really has latched onto it,” she said.
Espy foresees the city taking it over from the DBA long-term. In fact, she called Downtown Alive an anomaly when compared to other municipalities that enact similar plans across the nation. Normally, outdoor dining concepts of this nature are overseen by the city, she said.
“When we found out PPP wouldn’t help keep restaurants alive, Senator Harper Peterson is the one who called me and pushed DBA to spearhead the program,” Epsy said.
She praised DBA’s working relationship with city staff, attorneys, planners and the deputy city manager, Thom Moton, noting their help as incremental to make Downtown Alive happen.
“Thom is community-minded and supports the staff in the same mentality,” she said. “Their efforts as a whole have allowed us the opportunity to save businesses downtown.”
It’s been so successful, in fact, Espy said she has received calls from planners in Charleston, SC, and as far as Portland, OR, asking how Wilmington pulled it off so quickly after Governor Cooper opened restaurants at 50% capacity at the end of May.
“We just tried to follow the KISS rule,” Espy responded. “‘Keep It Simple Stupid.’ But, really, DBA focuses on businesses helping other businesses. That’s the key.”
Should Downtown Alive continue without DBA leading the helm, Espy sees it as a six-month or year-long contract for businesses to rent the parklets from the city, in order to make up for loss of metered parking revenue.
“It would be the same as the medallion dining program,” she explained.
Espy is referring to the downtown sidewalk space that restaurants rent from the city to allocate outdoor dining.
She also would like to find a way to beautify the parklets and, in turn, the city. Rather than continuing to use costly and unappealing bright orange barricades that restaurants like Husk are masking with lattice and plants, local architect Charles Boney approached Espy with a different idea: Put together a design contest among local architects to come up with modern ways to model the parklets.
“I’ve seen other cities use shipping containers that have been cut in half or cement planters used in intricate ways,” Espy explained.
But these are only early-stage ideas—nothing is set in stone. The city has to approve any extension of Downtown Alive and how it will operate past Nov. 22.