WILMINGTON — City officials drafted a report outlining the progress and challenges of the Downtown Alive restaurant initiative, which began late last month as a way to boost restaurants struggling through Covid-19 restrictions. Restaurants that are permitted to set up tables in the designated area — which now includes two blocks of Front Street and one block each of Princess and Dock streets — have reported increased sales, some with similar or better numbers than the same time last year, according to the report.
While the number of participating restaurants has increased weekly, community service and events officials advised against expanding to a phase two proposed by Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI), which would allow restaurants outside the program’s street closure area to place tables on-street parking spaces.
The report also provided an update on weeks of protestors marching through the closed-off streets, saying issues between diners and protestors had settled.
“While tensions were high the first week primarily due to profanity used by marchers and outdoor dining customers instigating or verbally countering the marchers, the protests have been peaceful with no arrests or major issues,” the report states.
The protestors had marched through the Downtown Alive area nightly the first two weekends of the initiative, but according to the report, they only marched through the area one night on the third weekend.
On Thursday, the start of the fourth weekend, around 50 protestors marched down Front Street — where most dining tables are set up — completely silent with their hands lifted in the air.
The report was received by Community Services Director Amy Beatty on Friday morning, according to city email records, who mentioned a same-day deadline to send it to Deputy City Manager Thom Morton.
One of Downtown Alive’s more popular features is the free towing provided by the city’s contracted event management company, Cool Wilmington. Vehicles who are still in parking spaces once the sections of downtown streets are closed off to traffic are taken to the Dram Tree Park boat ramp parking lot “for convenient retrieval.” Owners of towed cars must call Cool Wilmington, and the company then provides a golf cart to escort them to the lot, less than a half-mile from Front and Dock Street.
“This service has been well received with comments from those towed praising the graciousness and hospitality of the City,” according to the report. “It’s been noted that the majority of folks towed were from out of town, though one downtown resident has been towed twice.”
Thirty cars have been towed over the three weekends the initiative has been running, according to the report.
The number of participating establishments has increased from nine on the first week, to 12 on the second and 16 on the third. Only six restaurants within the closure footprint have chosen to not obtain the temporary use permits necessary to participate, reporting a lack of proper staffing to serve both inside and outside patrons.
“At least one restaurant delayed participation after obtaining a permit due an employee testing positive for Covid-19,” according to the city.
Although Downtown Business Alliance requested to extend the hours of Downtown Alive by one hour to 11 p.m., with streets reopening to car traffic at midnight, Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams and Deputy City Attorney Meredith Everhart “were not in support of extending hours, noting the need to transition into the late-night entertainment mode (bar operations if/when they reopen) and the need to support law enforcement’s operational needs.”
“It was additionally noted that only one business was requesting extended hours, and that business stops serving food at 10 p.m. The business is looking to further their bar/alcohol sales, not dining,” according to the report.
WDI had proposed the ‘Parklet Concept’ to help more businesses that are wishing to expand into the public right-of-way but are not in the Downtown Alive area. People would sit at a table inside a parking space on the side of a street.
“Because of the unexpected activity, traffic calming will naturally occur as most drivers will intrinsically slow down and pay closer attention,” according to the report. “A barrier to define and separate traffic and people is still needed.”
The WDI had identified three options to delineate the parklets: pedestrian barricades (bike rack style), pedestrian barricades with curb stops, and water-filled ‘Jersey barriers’ (plastic partitions).
But the city noted challenges to the concept, particularly that it countered City Council’s stated goal of limiting the initiative to only four days a week with set hours. Officials said Jersey barriers, although mobile, would not stop a moving vehicle.
“While research shows other Cities using the pedestrian barricades, during day time hours, Council wanted a more rigid, safer option for our street closures thus the rental of the [hostile vehicle mitigation devices]. Does it make sense to take extra precautionary measures to make the street closures safe with the rental of the VMD’s only to offer no protection of parklets?” the report asked.
Staff began using the devices, which are laid on the street to prevent traffic, upon a request by City Council.