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Closing Main Street is an idea worth trying

Revitalizing downtown Hendersonville is writ small the fundamental challenge of the pandemic crisis itself: How do government and business work together to emerge from lockdown in a way that successfully stands business back up while protecting the health and safety of the public?

The unprecedented challenge calls for an unprecedented response. The Hendersonville City Council took a bold step on Monday to bring people back to Main Street to shop and dine and just walk around. As the plan stands now — and complications aplenty could change the plan — the city will close Main Street from Friday afternoon through Sunday, May 29-31. The avenues would remain open to facilitate traffic flow.
The city’s downtown economic development director, Lew Holloway, first presented the street closing idea at the tail end of a City Council budget work session on May 8. After giving the staff the greenlight to explore the idea further, the council spent about an hour and a half volleying the pros and cons before voting unanimously Monday night to endorse the experiment.
An experiment is what it is. No one is suggesting that the pedestrian mall concept become permanent. As the Lightning showed in its two-part Serpentine Solution series last year, city leaders in the mid-1970s saved downtown by transforming Main Street into a pedestrian friendly instead of a pedestrian only place.
Holloway presented the council with 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 closure.
Council and staff agreed that trying for the street closing this weekend — when the street would have been closed for Garden Jubilee, but for the coronavirus — was too ambitious and probably impossible anyway given the state’s ABC liquor law bureaucracy. (In order to expand their service outdoors, restaurants have to file amended diagrams with the state.)
The two newest council members, Jennifer Hensley and Lyndsey Simpson, joined Councilman Jerry Smith in voicing strong support for the street closing, saying it not only had the best chance of drawing foot traffic but would do so in the safest way from a social distancing standpoint.
“The whole goal is to expand operating capacity for restaurants and retail,” Hensley 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.”
It’s important to follow through on the sense from the council, which is shared by the professional staff, that the street closing is intended to boost all businesses downtown, not just restaurants. City Manager John Connet called it “Open Streets Weekend,” which, though well-intended, sounds Orwellian, given that the street will be closed to traffic.
Whatever it’s called, turning Main Street into a wide pedestrian walkway with room for dining and outdoor browsing and shopping is a worthwhile experiment that might just jumpstart our beleaguered and beloved downtown.