By Pete Zamplas
Hendersonville – Hendersonville will seem like a busy outdoor mall or micro-street festival with more casual strollers, window shoppers and outdoor diners than usual this weekend with Main Street closed to cars parking or driving through it.
City Council voted on March 18 to close Main but not its crossing avenues, as a bold weekend-long foray into the Open Streets pedestrian plan. The city aims to extend or revise it, as it lasts a month and perhaps through autumn.
Council’s strong Main closure advocates Jerry Smith, Lyndsey Simpson and Jennifer Hensley provided a voting majority. Mayor Barbara Volk and Jeff Miller were more cautionary and tentative, but made it a unanimous vote.
The closure is initially tested as a full Main Street closure this coming “Open Streets Weekend,” May 29-31 starting Friday at 4 pm.
After that the closure could be scaled back such as on sidewalks only, for the rest of the month-long test. Council meets June 4. “I would rather go all the way first and have to pull back,” Simpson said of closing Main Street itself. “I would rather go big first, and see how it works.”
Officials said most downtown merchants support Main closure, though some strongly oppose it for concerns such as loss of parking deterring customers.
Downtown Hendersonville has more than 100 shops and 25 restaurants along Main and a block each to Church and King streets. Beyond Main, stand-alone restaurants within city limits will get parking space requirements waived, so they also can provide much more outside dining.
Open Streets coincides with easting off state easing quarantine restrictions last Friday, in phase two of commercial/social re-openings.
Now public pools are open, joining state parks. Churches and “non-essential” businesses such as salons/barber shops, child care and massage therapy (with masks) can reopen. So can restaurants’ indoor seating, to go with outdoor seating phase one allowed.
“Safety protocols” are required to let customers inside — limiting to half of fire code capacity if that is set, or else 12 people (spaced six or more feet apart) per 1,000 feet. Phase one capacity was 25 percent, for more essential businesses.
Still closed in North Carolina are bars and clubs not qualifying as quasi-restaurants, playgrounds, gyms, fitness centers, indoor tennis courts, museums; also entertainment venues such as cinemas, bingo halls and bowling alleys.
Open Street’s start was put off a week, until after Memorial Day weekend — which was rainy as forecast. The delay also gives eateries time to secure state alcohol-serving permits.
There are two added draws this weekend. Bearfootin’ 20 new bear porcelain figurines adorn most blocks along the mile-long Main Street, now into October.
Four free yoga classes are in front of the Historic Courthouse, starting 10 am and 5:30 pm Saturday and Sunday. Yoga & Massage (YAM) is putting on those clinics, for the first 25 people to show.
That conforms to the limit of 25 for outdoor social gatherings such as at nature trails, farmer markets, parks, beaches and amphitheaters. Ten is the limit indoors.
The Open Streets strategy is to draw more pedestrian traffic to Downtown akin to an outdoor mall, and to expand and spread outdoor dining along sidewalk and into Main Street, officials said. Some Restaurants along Main have outdoor dining by their frontage. They can expand along the sidewalk to in front of other storefronts, and into on-street parking spaces at least for this weekend.
Council approved full Main closure after weighing three options that Downtown Economic Development Director Lew Holloway developed, after consulting downtown business owners.
Sidewalk dining only is what Miller wanted the city to start with. But that could jam sidewalks and block store entrances, hurting business, Smith and Simpson warned.
Hensley liked sidewalk only on weekend days, then full street closure at 6 pm Fridays and Saturdays. That is among fallback options, after this weekend. Full Main closure beat out sidewalks only and also setting aside parallel parking spaces for dining tables.
A prime drawback of closing Main traffic is loss of parking. A five-story city parking deck is planned soon on the Dogwood lot a block off Church Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues. That deck goes with a Marriott Hotel project. City leaders eye a second garage, on downtown’s south end.
Meanwhile, several merchants are concerned about parking during its closures. “We’re losing hundreds of spaces down Main,” including handicapped spots, Stephen Goranson said. He has run his Clothes Horse Outfitters leather goods shop at 340 N. Main for 24 years. He noted many elderly are reluctant to walk a distance to a store, drive around searching for a parking spot, or haul heavy packages back to the car.
Also, elder and disabled patrons can no longer be dropped off on Main, only back alleys often clogged by parked cars, Wine, Sage & Gourmet owner Merit Wolfe said.
An underlining concern is businesses shuttered for weeks will struggle financially, if hampered by distant customer parking on top of social limit rules. Whereas a gift store can flourish with a few purchasing customers at a time, restaurants traditionally rely on fuller crowds during peak meal hours. Operating at a fraction of capacity as the state mandates makes it tough for such businesses to cover expenses, many merchants have said.
“There are nine vacant stores here,” Goranson said. A casualty already is Skyland Barber Shop at 534 N. Main, closing after 90 years as a social hub.