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Council endorses four more 'Open Streets' weekends

The first "Open Streets Weekend" was popular enough to keep going, Hendersonville City Council members said Thursday night as they agreed to close Main Street to motor vehicles at least four more times over the next 10 weeks.

Council members agreed to extend the street closing after Downtown Development Director Lew Holloway reported that restaurant and shop owners had been largely supportive of the promotion after a trial run last weekend. The City Council authorized the first Main Street closing — leaving the avenues open — on May 18 to try to boost business at restaurants and shops crippled by the coronavirus shutdown.

Responses to a city survey on last weekend's trial run "was pretty much overwhelmingly positive," Holloway said. "Some of the thmes that came out of of the feedback and comments could generally be categorized to a desire to see additional use of the street itself. There was this desire to see it be even more festive but the bottom line from the survey response was the 'positive feeling, relaxing, innovative, awesome, safe.'" Ninety-five restaurateurs, shopkeepers, salon operators and other business owners responded to the survey, he said.

"I believe that we can achieve a great deal of buy in with the monthly frequency and doing so will help the success of the event, is the bottom line," Holloway told the council. "We believe we have a strong majority of merchants that will buy into that frequency and that their buy-in will vastly improve the experience that customers are looking for downtown."

Council members Jerry Smith and Jennifer Hensley pushed for the more frequent street closing.

"I'm in favor of twice a month," Smith said. "I had one merchant that said to me, 'I wish you'd do it every weekend for the entire summer.' I'm not sure we've ever done anything with this much positive response."

"Out of the retailers that I visited," Hensley said, "they were very grateful that we had done this. They reported better sales. I know one business said this was the second best Saturday they had had in three months."

Council members directed the city staff to hold the Open Streets Weekend again June 19-21, July 3-5 and July 31-Aug. 2. At its July meeting, the council will evaluate the street closings.

Although he had recommended the event take place once a month, Holloway said a twice monthly schedule could allow shopkeepers and restaurants more opportunities to refine their approach to maximize sales.

“It’s always a balance,” he said. “We didn’t ask the customers how often they’d like to see it repeated. On the consumer side, I think there’s an appetite for it. The balance of that is getting the buy-in from the business community and getting as many as them to buy into it as possible. The largest group of people that said yes (to repeating the Open Streets Weekend) said monthly but that left 43 percent that had said do it bimonthly (twice a month) or weekly. … It’s just a matter of working through what is the sweet spot.”

In the survey, 35 percent of the businesses reported a 10-50 percent increase in sales over the average of their past two weeks, 18 percent were up 50 percent or more and 15 percent reported that sales stayed level. That left 34 percent with lower sales (down by 10 percent or more). Seventy-six percent of the survey respondents said they wanted to see the street closing happen again, with varying opinions on how often. Seventy percent of the respondents were retailers, 2 percent salons, 15 restaurants and 15 percent other businesses.

"My preference would be once a month but I will go along with twice a month through July," Mayor Barbara Volk said. "I hate to commit to the whole time if we start getting complaints from the merchants that things are not working out. I do have some reservations about twice a month."

In the survey, some business owners suggested music, more sales and dining in the middle of the street and a festival-like atmosphere.

"We believe that some of the activities and elements that people would like to see added will be even more doable as we do move into Phase 3," Holloway said.