Friday, May 20, 2022

Wilmington restaurant owners weigh in on ‘Downtown Alive’ program

Patrons eat at tables lined up along Front Street Thursday evening as part of Downtown Alive's initiative to expand seating areas for downtown restaurants. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Patrons eat at tables lined up along Front Street Thursday evening as part of Downtown Alive’s initiative to expand seating areas for downtown restaurants. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON —- Last week was the first week of Downtown Alive, a new initiative that closes several city streets to allow business owners the chance to utilize outdoor areas that would typically be reserved for vehicle traffic.

All of this was in response to Covid-19 and Governor Roy Cooper’s three-phase reopening plan for the state. Currently, in phase two, restaurants and other businesses are only permitted to open with limited capacity, allowing outdoor seating helps owners maximize the number of customers permitted.

Even before the plan was put into action residents and business owners were calling for it to be made permanent and after just one week that sentiment continues.

Restaurant owners approve

Ray Baca owns a downtown business and offered his thoughts on the current operations.

“I loved it. Last week I think the restaurants only had two days notice so not all the restaurants participated nor were they fully prepared as to what they could or couldn’t do. But overall it worked flawlessly. Downtown Alive Wilmington NC is going to give our economy a much-needed push. Once more restaurants, shops, and eventually bars all participate I know it will be great,” he said.

Hayley Jensen, who along with her husband Stephen Durley co-own downtown’s Beer Barrio and Skytown Beer Company near Target, said the program has been great. Prior to the rollout of Downtown Alive, Beer Barrio had not been doing inside seating — so expanding onto the street doubled the restaurant’s seating, and let Jensen and Durley put their team back to work.

“We are really excited about staffing a full team again, too,” Jensen said.

Front Street Brewery owner Tom Harris and marketing manager Ellie Craig said the program has been a “great success,” and noted they’ve seen the positive impact across the downtown and in their own restaurant. Craig pointed out that, with repeated changes in regulations, restaurants have had to “develop a new business model every other week” — but that the Downtown Alive has so far been a stable success.

“We’ve thoroughly enjoyed that experience,” Craig said. “It’s obviously added an additional line of revenue for us — but it’s also helping us provide jobs. Every day that we’re doing that we’re able to provide a server with a position, a host, a busser… so that’s helping us on a number of different levels.”

Craig added “I cannot commend Downtown Business Alliance, Cool Wilmington [who is managing the event], and city staff and City Council enough for their collaborative efforts to have this run so smoothly.”

Customers handling new regulations

While restaurant staff are required to wear facemasks, customers don’t have to while eating and drinking — which can lead to some a potentially awkward transition when they use the restroom and are required to ‘mask up.’ But downtown restaurant owners say customers have been overwhelmingly understanding of their requests.

Harris said even before Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders Front Street Brewery was spacing out tables and bar stools, adding new cleaning protocols, and providing numerous hand sanitization stations (which took some doing, Harris noted, since in the early days of the pandemic cleaning supplies were in short supply for commercial and retail suppliers alike).

As new regulations have rolled out, Harris and Craig said their customers have been very respectful.

“The key has been communication on our part,” Harris said, saying making sure hosts are informing customers about the restaurant’s mask policy upfront has ensured there are no surprises.

Jensen also said customers had been respectful of Covid restrictions at Beer Barrio — adding that for most, the ‘festive atmosphere’ was the real takeway from dining on Downtown Alive days and evenings.

Suggestions (i.e. ‘make it permanent.’)

Baca offered some recommendations, including the common refrain of making Downtown Alive permanent — or at least a recurring event beyond the pandemic.

“Suggestion 1: Make it permanent. If it is permanent the restaurants wouldn’t have to struggle to put out tables and chairs after 5:30. The creativity of a permanent event will allow for more awnings and other weather measures. If permanent plant more trees and flower boxes to make the overall vibe shine,” he said.

Others shared similar sentiments. One resident suggested it be made permanent and in conjunction with the Downtown Sundown series that usually takes place during the summer. Another suggestion was to possibly include events like a farmers market and some music to entice more patrons to head downtown.

“In front of the businesses that are closed (Pravda or Bailey Park for example) I would love to see a farmers market, art show, or live music (solo or acoustic acts). The thing I noticed the most last weekend was the lack of sound. I mean that in the best way. No cars, motorcycles or trucks driving on Front Street. No smell of exhaust. Just people roaming the streets, people walking dogs, shopping and enjoying our downtown for what I really think it was made for. In a town that we literally can sit outside 85% of the year, this makes sense. So I’d push for year-round personally,” Baca said.

City leaders were concerned with security but in conjunction with an event management company and police, Baca said it’s not a problem for him.

“There are security and police patrolling as usual so you can feel safe. Parking decks are close by so the first hour is free and each hour after is only $1.50 I think. I own a business off Princess and this will affect my parking for my guests and be a bit of an inconvenience. But, the overall health of our downtown will make this so much worth it. We have to look at this as a whole community and not just individual spots. We will figure out how to work around the kinks. My two cents, but overall it is what we needed and I’d love to see how this weekend goes. Get creative restaurants and let’s have a little fun!” Baca concluded.

The event is only temporary for now and City Council approved it for just a few weeks this summer, but if it proves to be a success, City Council could consider making it an annual event.

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