WILMINGTON—On Sunday, Nov. 22, Downtown Business Alliance (DBA) will wrap its Downtown Alive parklet program, which increases outdoor dining for local restaurants by way of extending square footage into metered parking spaces on the street. The concept is an offshoot of the original program that closed off downtown streets during the summer, where people could enjoy more al fresco dining options amid Covid-19 regulations.
DBA president Terry Espy said a task force has been created, made up of downtown restaurateurs, business owners and even city staff, in hopes of continuing the program. Funds from the Municipal District Tax, WDI, DBA, donations and the restaurants themselves have depleted — which has cost over $200,000 to date — for Downtown Alive to continue the program at this juncture; DBA wants to turn it over to the city to manage moving forward.
The task force met for the first time this week to strategize a long-term plan to present to the City of Wilmington. “It’s really helped so many restaurants make up for lost revenue during the pandemic,” Espy said on a phone call earlier in the week.
Justin Smith, owner of Anne Bonnys, Husk, YoSake and Dram + Morsel, is on the task force. He said some of his restaurants experienced an increase of 5% to 25% in sales over the course of Downtown Alive’s existence, which started June 25.
“We were able to utilize the Downtown Alive closure of Front Street for YoSake, and the parklets on Dock Street have been a success for the Husk,” Smith said. “As we come out of the pandemic, it should add some additional revenue, as we all try and climb out of the financial hole we have fallen into.”
Smith confirmed he would continue renting the parklets from the city if it continues the program. Espy predicted it could cost up to $300 a month per metered space, with restaurants having the option of a six-month or year-long lease.
While Smith believes restaurants should share in the accountability of costs, and even sympathized with the need for the city to make up for financial loss coming from the parking meters, he also noted the city should be mindful of the vulnerability of businesses right now.
“I do believe that through Covid times, if there is rent, we have to take into account that folks are relying on this extra seating to help make up for already depleted sales,” Smith said. “This is a program [that] started to help businesses through this difficult time, and I think those intentions should remain through the pandemic.”
Espy hopes the city will consider phasing in any rental fees — specifically, not charging in the short-term for the metered spaces and gradually implementing costs as businesses pick up speed again. She added, had it not been for Downtown Alive, downtown itself may not have been as busy over these last five months.
“I don’t know that downtown would have made half the parking meter money it did make, had we not closed off streets,” Espy weighed.
At its height Downtown Alive brought in upward of 1,500 people on weekends, according to Espy. The extra traffic did more than just boost restaurants; some downtown retail shops saw increased customers.
Eliza Santos opened Divine Vintage Boutique next door to Front Street’s Fun Bowl, of which she is also a partner. The cards already were stacked against her for opening a business mid-pandemic.
“Of course, I was nervous,” Santos said, “not knowing how it was going to affect the overall business, but I had multiple backup plans in case it was not successful.”
She and her 21-year-old daughter, Brianna Garrido, opened in August and saw a good amount of foot traffic immediately. Since Downtown Alive stopped closing off the streets mid-October, Santo says sales revenue has decreased around 30%.
“I am sure it is not entirely just because of Downtown Alive [street closures] not being implemented, but I can definitely say it has a lot to do with it,” she said.
Espy foresees the parklet rental being available to all downtown businesses, not just restaurants, should it move forward. The task force has been researching other cities nationwide that already do it. Espy pointed to a city in California as an example of businesses using metered spaces as creative extensions to draw in shoppers, be it sidewalk sales or even making the spaces interactive.
“One outdoor parklet in Long Beach has a fitness area in it,” she said.
While Santos is confident Fun Bowl would rent the parklets for extra dining, she’s unsure if her vintage shop would do so. Yet, she’s not opposed to the idea either.
“If I can figure out a way, I will,” she said. “I am a true supporter of this project and will do whatever it takes to help keep it an ongoing opportunity for us small business owners in the downtown area.”
Chuck Archer — general manager of Rebellion and who also helps operations at its sister restaurant, Crust — agreed Downtown Alive helped with their business numbers, too. The summer’s downtown street closures boosted Rebellion’s sales equal to that of 2019. And that’s with the restaurant only opening at 30% capacity — 20% less than Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order put in place in May.
“We really were careful for our customers,” Archer said, pointing to strict mask-wearing and tableside service his staff adhered to. Rebellion’s outdoor side patio and the additional seating on Front Street even allowed them to bring back live music and remain safe.
How the program played out for Crust looked a bit different. At first, Archer said the parklets didn’t really help the gourmet grilled-cheese shop’s sales. With its back patio, it can only seat 23 people total at reduced occupancy. According to Archer, it seemed the downtown street closures brought people more toward Front and away from Princess, where Crust is located. However, when the downtown street closures ended, Crust’s diner count went up.
“It was weird, since there was no difference in concept,” he said, “except now we have parklets full time, seven days a week. It ends up we are serving more people out front now. Of course, I don’t know if some of that is because people are more conscientious of eating outside because of Covid numbers rising in this second wave or whatever.”
Archer confirmed he would get behind the parkelt concept continuing, though only Crust would benefit. Rebellion doesn’t have metered spaces in front of its location near Front and Market streets.
Should the city reapproach closing off downtown streets again, Rebellion would support it. Still, Archer would like it to become a weekend fixture, where streets are closed fully, Thursday through Sunday — not just during certain hours.
“A lot of restaurants came out of pocket for outdoor seating,” he said. “Some days, the program would be called off due to rain, but it would clear up and then they’d call it back on. That would kill business for the day. We definitely would need a more permanent solution, where you know everyday when your staff is coming in, setting up furniture outside, the streets are closed no matter what. It allows businesses to get behind it and invest in it because you know you’ll have it forever, not just three months.”
Espy was clear the task force are presenting to council the parklet concept only. She mentioned they would recommend putting up removable bollards to ease intermittent street closures during busier times, like Azalea Fest or Riverfest, but they don’t have plans presenting to council the street closures option.
However Downtown Alive looks moving forward will remain in the hands of the city. After the parklet concept closes on Sunday, Espy said it will take time for the task force to get the proposal together to present to council. Then, council would have to approve it.
“We’re probably looking at February for that to happen,” she speculated.
Downtown Alive has remained a silver lining in an otherwise bleak financial year for many businesses and for downtown as a whole to draw back tourist dollars. The mild climate in southeastern NC certainly helps maximize those opportunities with more people spending time outside, which potentially could expand the lifespan of the program beyond spring, summer and fall.
“Who would have thought in such negative, crazy times this is what downtown could look like?” Espy asked rhetorically.
“It brought a whole new vibe to the downtown area,” Santos said. “Locals were able to freely walk with their dogs in the street, a lot of socializing was going on, dining was busy and in demand . . . Someone was even playing live music a couple of nights, which made it quite enjoyable. People were happy.”
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