As Downtown's Outdoor Dining Expansion Continues, Future Extension Possible

By Jessica Maurer, posted Sep 9, 2020
Downtown Alive had been extended through at least Oct. 18. (File photo)
The success of allowing an expansion of outdoor dining and commerce in downtown Wilmington has provided a strong case for the city to consider a similar program that would extend even beyond the pandemic, said Chris Andrews, president of Cool Wilmington, the event management company responsible for overseeing Downtown Alive.

The Wilmington City Council voted last week to extend Downtown Alive through Oct. 18, adding the opportunity to block off parking spaces to help businesses not on streets that are closed for the program. 

“I think it's fortunate that we've been able to adapt to the current situation and figure out how to make the program effective,” Andrews said. “There's a lot we've been able to learn from this, which will be helpful as we assess potential long-term ideas.”
The council first approved the program in June, allowing for street closures in certain areas of downtown Thursday to Sunday through Labor Day. The closures have allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor seating capacity throughout the state's phase two dining restrictions.
The Downtown Alive program had cost about $110,000. A portion of the funding for the extension and parklet (blocked parking spaces) option will come from the city’s canceled Fourth of July fireworks displays ($40,000), while the rest will be covered by the Municipal Service District fund ($20,000), the Downtown Business Alliance ($5,000) and restaurants themselves ($13,750).

The council also authorized City Manager Sterling Cheatham to extend the program for an additional four weeks through Nov. 22, pending the approval of more funding. 
Andrews said the program has been going very well, and has been greatly appreciated by the participating businesses, as well as many area retailers, who have benefited from the foot traffic.
“It seems that locals are really interested in supporting local business and a lot of people have been very enthusiastic about voicing their support of the program to the city of Wilmington,” Chris Andrews said. “That speaks volumes as to why the program has been extended.”
Some have expressed interest in the possibility of creating a permanent pedestrian zone in the heart of downtown, similar to those in cities such as Charlottesville, Virginia, or Burlington, Vermont. At the same time, Mayor Bill Saffo in a WHQR story expressed concern about the idea of a permanent street closure.
According to Andrews, a number of cities across the state have contacted the Downtown Business Alliance requesting information on how to put together a program like Downtown Alive.
While his company works closely with downtown businesses to promote events such as the Downtown Wilmington Wine and Beer Walks, the American Craft Walk, Rims on the River and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Andrews said managing Downtown Alive is quite different from what his firm normally does, he said.
“This has been a challenge to us in many ways, but it’s right in line with our mission to attract people to downtown,” Andrews said. 
He said that as the program enters its second phase, 17 to 20 additional businesses will participate with the implementation of parklets, which are blocked off parking spaces. 

The parklets will be available seven days a week and must be designated with water- or sand-filled barricades.
“The whole reason this came about was because of COVID, but going forward we’d love to be able to incorporate entertainment,” Andrews said. “That doesn't work with current social distancing guidelines, but I believe there is room to expand the program and make it an even more fun experience.”
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