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City to try closing Main Street May 29-21

Dancing Bear Toys on Main Street. Dancing Bear Toys on Main Street.

The Hendersonville City Council authorized the closing of Main Street for a weekend to see if the idea draws foot traffic downtown and boosts business for restaurants and shops.

The Hendersonville City Council in a special called meeting on Monday authorized the city administration to move ahead with what amounts to an experiment with the street closing from Friday evening through Sunday May 29-31. The council's unanimous vote came after more than an hour of discussion, during which three members — Jennifer Hensley, Lyndsey Simpson and Jerry Smith — strongly supported the closing while Councilman Jeff Miller and Mayor Barbara Volk urged more caution.

Downtown economic development director Lew Holloway told the council that after conversations with stakeholders in the district he had drafted three options: full closure of Main Street on weekends, except for the avenues; partial closure, using parking spaces for the dining tables; expanded sidewalk dining space with no closing.

The council essentially endorsed all three options, authorizing the city to move ahead right way with expanded sidewalk dining, with "the ability to look at some of the 30-minute parking spaces in situations where that would be beneficial," Holloway said. "We won't blanket grab those but if a restaurant is adjacent to those and it would facilitate expanded dining we would investigate it."

Holloway notified downtown stakeholders on Tuesday morning of the council's actions and he planned to talk about the changes in a regular call with downtown business owners Tuesday afternoon. Thirteen restaurants have responded that they're interested in expanded outdoor dining space.

"There has been interest in the concept from the get-go and we'll continue to look for ways to energize that and support those businesses," he said.

The city is trying to jelp restaurants beyond downtown, too. City Manager John Connet and Development Assistance Director Susan Frady are working on modifying parking requirements to allow standalone restaurants outside the central business district to add outdoor dining.

Expanding sidewalk access on Main Street may not do enough to help the restaurants, Simpson said. Some shopkeepers, she said, are concerned that restaurants will take over the sidewalks and limit access to their shops.

"As far as encroaching on the front of the stores, the whole purpose isn't just to save restaurants," Miller said. "It's to draw foot traffic. We're not going to do this forever. ... We're looking right now at a 30-day trial. Maybe we'll learn some things. None of us is sure what will work."

Some people have written to the council to support the street closing because they feel people would be able to spread out.

"It's more inviting to them because they're not crammed into sidewalks," Smith said. With no street closing, "the perception may be that the sidewalks are going to be crowded. The pedestrian mall concept I do think would bring some people out that wouldn't come out otherwise."

Hensley said that except for "a handful" retailers that oppose the closing, there seemed to be widespread support for the street closing among the public, restaurants and other shops.

Simpson said the street closing would be the safer way to draw more traffic. "If we just do the sidewalks, it's still going to be too many too close together," she said. "I would rather go all the way first and have to pull back. I would rather go big first and see how it works."

Miller favored a cautious approach of expanded sidewalk dining, with no partial closing or complete closing.

"I got two emails, one of which did everything but call me names," he said. "You can't make everybody happy all the time."

Smith called for the full closing, at least on some nights, "because this allows for some expanded dining on the street, so to speak, and I thought that was what the concept was, and it certainly provides for some expanded walkway, if nothing more."

Hensley, too, supported "more of a closure," to draw more foot traffic. "I don't understand why we couldn't do just the sidewalk dining and then Friday night at 6 and Saturday night at 6 we shut down Main Street I don't see how that is going to negatively affect the folks emailing us."

She urged quick action vs. more study.

"The whole goal is to expand operating capacity for restaurants and retail," she said. "They're not benefiting by having more talk. I just think all the retail places would be able to have street vending, have adequate space and drive some business to Main Street. I like the idea of giving this a try. I feel like you never know unless you try it."

After close to an hour of discussion, Smith said he supported trying the full closure this weekend, from 4 p.m. Friday and all day Saturday.

The alcohol permitting is likely to take time.

"We have been in touch with ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement) and ABC in Raleigh and told them know we're exploring this," Holloway said. "They've given us some general direction on who to talk with."

Because it's on the city's right of way, the expanded dining space requires the restaurant to submit an updated diagram of the service area. It's not known whether regulators could approve the amended diagrams in time for a closing this weekend.

Given the tight deadline, Connet suggested shooting for one week later, May 29-31.

"We could advertise, promote and invite people downtown next weekend and maybe try for the whole weekend," Connet said. "Call it 'Open Streets Weekend' and have everybody plan for it and see if that gives enough time."

The council agreed to that and authorized the staff to move ahead with the street closing Friday night through Sunday and also authorized waiving parking regulations so stand-alone restaurants could add outside dining.

Shopkeepers oppose street closing

Some Main Street shopkeepers had been pushing back on a proposal to close Main Street on weekends so restaurants could expand dining to the street with tables spaced far apart.

Sarah Evers, co-owner of Dancing Bear Toys, and a few other merchants had asked the City Council to reconsider the street closing or reduce the time it would be blocked off. “From our experience, closing the street significantly affects our sales,” Evers told the council. If the council supports the closing, she suggested the barricades go up at 4 p.m., not all day.
Under a proposal downtown economic development director Lew Holloway described to the council on May 8, the city would close Main Street Friday night through Sunday, leaving the avenues open.
In a lengthy message to downtown merchants and posted on line on Sunday, Holloway appealed to the business owners to be open to the idea.

“The Strategic covid-19 response plan adopted by the Downtown Committee’s Executive Team specifically directed us to pursue these types of initiatives among others,” he said. “We are your strategic partners; this crisis has impacted each of you in different ways and we are compelled to act to support a response to those impacts.”
Evers said the street closing may attract too many people and make it impossible to keep diners and shoppers separated.
“I’m working on a plan that maybe we all can work with,” she said. “Opening up for even more dining feels like inviting that festival feel. I’m not in favor of closing the street for an extended amount of time.”
Dancing Bear has been cautious about serving the public, offering no-touch delivery of orders customers call in.
“We cater to elderly people,” who won't want to mingle with strangers, she said. Business “has been medium, for not being open. We’ve had business. A lot of grandparents are having to take care of grandchildren and they’ve needed workbooks and education materials and things to get through with the kids.”
Shops on either side of Dancing Bear — the Village Green and Wine, Sage & Gourmet — also oppose the street closing.
“Because my business is wine, I am, now especially, carrying cases of wine to my customers' cars,” owner Merit Wolff said in an email to Holloway and the council. “To have to carry a case of wine from mid-block to one corner or another, assuming they can find parking, is going to be very difficult. In addition, I will now have to have another employee in the store since I could potentially be carrying wine a distance and cannot leave my store unattended. Aside from personal inconvenience, many of my customers are older and not able or willing to walk a long distance to come to the store. Having adequate and nearby parking is essential for our customers. Yes, I have the alley, but it is often blocked or they simply are unsure where to come in.”
Caroline Gunther, owner of Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique, has been working with the city and talking to business owners on either side of the issue.
“I want to do what’s best for Main Street as a whole,” she said. Asked what approach that would be, she said, “That would very much depend on who you talk to. I am fine either way. I will make it work for me whatever happens because I can be creative and resilient and put myself in the best interest of my peers.”
Rumors spread after the May 8 discussion of the street closing that the council had already voted to barricade the street.
“Nothing’s set in stone,” said Gunther, who also serves on the Downtown Advisory Committee, which recommends policies and promotions for Main Street merchants. “I’ve heard a lot of misinformation,” including rumors that the street closing would be every day, that it would last through November or even become permanent. The changes caused by the coronavirus shutdown are so vast, she said, that it will take bold ideas to stimulate business.
“Now is the time to be creative and think outside the box,” she said. “I really hope they step up to the plate and take that opportunity. I believe in the creativity and resilience of the businesses on Main Street, whether they’re retail or restaurants, and that they can make it work if they try.”

Holloway said the downtown team has looked at expanded sidewalk dining, using parking spaces or the whole street.
“Each option has positives and negatives that impact businesses and customers in different ways,” he said. “No option is universally favored based on the response we’ve received to date. The most discussed option has been in parking and on-street with Main Street closure. The larger community’s response to this idea has been positive, although some of you have expressed your opposition to this while offering alternative suggestions.”
The city had also considered allowing shops to move merchandise to a four-foot space outside their shops, like many do during the Apple Festival, “but it appears the logistical challenges to doing so, as expressed by some of you all, suggested this would not be particularly useful for you,” Holloway said.
As for the duration, Holloway said that would likely track the reopening rules set by the governor.
“With the response being tied to the limitations on restaurant occupancy, we proposed that it run alongside those limitations,” he said. “Because we don’t know when those restrictions will be lifted that was open ended. If council wants to move forward, we will propose that we run it for an initial time frame of a month and then reassess in concert with all those involved.”