Amid phase two following the COVID-19 shutdown, downtown Wilmington seems to be alive and well when it comes to outdoor dining, thanks to the Downtown Alive initiative.
From Thursday through Sunday, pedestrians rule some city blocks that shut down to traffic as businesses take to the streets to expand occupancy and achieve compliance.
“It’s been even better than we anticipated,” said Terry Espy, president of the Downtown Business Alliance.
Even businesses beyond the pedestrian-only areas have noticed an uptick during the street closure times.
“Our goal has been to have enough foot traffic, faithfully, with social distancing and face masks a priority, so that employees are walking away from their unemployment checks.
And that has been our yard stick, our barometer, in which to measure the success of it. And they are,” Espy said.
Organizers are still doing a little “tweaking” as they move forward, Espy admits, as it is still a work in progress, but the past few weekends have shown positive results. In addition to Downtown Business Alliance, the city of Wilmington and Wilmington Downtown Inc. were also involved in bringing Downtown Alive to life.
“We were hoping numbers would be able to increase over that 50% capacity, but we are going way beyond that with some businesses beating numbers that they did at 100% capacity pre-COVID,” Espy said.
“Hostesses and staff are reaching out and saying to customers, ‘We really appreciate your support, and because of people like you, we are not just getting by, we are thriving,’” Espy added.
Many of the pedestrians are visitors from out of town who say the open-air business atmosphere adds to the character and charm of Wilmington, according to Espy.
Many of them have encouraged the businesses to make it permanent, but DBA is not “aggressively” pursuing that at present.
“What we have is business owners coming together who said, ‘We need help,’ and that’s what the DBA does. And the city appreciated that the business owners thought it through and came up with a plan,” Espy said.
Business owners said they appreciate the chance to open while expanding their occupancy to serve more customers safely attempting to recoup some of what was lost during the shutdown.
“It has been great. It gives us the opportunity to safely expand seating,” said John Bradley, owner of the Front Street restaurant Rebellion NC. “It allows us to keep running and be on the good side of paying the bills.”
Bradley said expanding outdoors on a regular basis could be “absolutely marvelous for the restaurants once all this COVID is over, and it could be a part of the downtown lifestyle.”
The outdoor expansion is an exciting possibility for the future, but Bradley admitted, he is hesitant to invest too much in equipment if there is any uncertainty whether this will become a permanent downtown fixture.
“In order to be viable at home, this will take time for people to learn about it and want to do this, but if this is only a one-shot deal, you can only do so much because I don’t want to be sitting on all this equipment that I can’t use,” Bradley said.
Not all city leaders are convinced that Downtown Alive should be an enduring takeaway from the pandemic recovery.
“It was really done as a temporary measure to help provide an outdoor space for those with limited occupancy inside,” said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Wilmington Downtown Inc. “It’s been a massive effort on behalf of many people, including those at the state level.”
Wolverton also emphasized that the measure only applies to a small area of downtown Wilmington, but it does assist all the businesses throughout the historic district.
“We need to use public space in a more creative way without closing streets, and that is a phase we are working on right now,” Wolverton said. “We are thinking of converting parking spaces into usable spaces for businesses, in what they call a ‘parklet.’”
The idea stems from the successful event that WDI has sponsored for the past seven years as part of international Park(ING) Day, when organizations are encouraged to reimagine parking space use beyond parked cars.
“We can build on that existing work and convert parking spaces into essentially anything in a safe and visually interesting way,” Wolverton said. “It is very important to innovate and look at spaces in creative ways.”
Downtown business owners Mike and Allie Bryand, who own The Bryand Gallery, have been creative in their participation in Downtown Alive by using a tent to invite their 50 local artists to sell their products in front of their space at 20 S. Front St.
As a “non-COVID event,” according to Bryand, it would become more developed and establish itself with more businesses taking part.
“Outdoors, with the music coming from the bars and restaurants, it’s just fun and adds some excitement,” Bryand said. “It’s been really good. It is not a minus for anyone, let’s put it that way.”
With many businesses expressing a desire to keep the initiative permanently, Mayor Bill Saffo said he is willing to consider it.
“It has gotten off to a good start to help small business owners hit hard by COVID-19,” Saffo said.
The Downtown Alive initiative fits in well with the existing Wilmington Vision 2020 plan, which has sought to add capacity to sidewalks along Front Street and enabled the city to “pivot due to the situation where it is impossible to do 100% inside capacity,” Saffo said.
“I am not a fan of closing streets permanently, but from time to time, on certain nights of the week or month. But it needs to be done strategically, and I’d be willing to take a look at it,” the mayor said.
For right now, Saffo said, “It’s been a roaring success, and it was the right thing to do.”
Downtown Alive runs Thursday and Friday evenings from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 7.
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