By Pete Zamplas
Hendersonville – Main Street will close to vehicular traffic twice a month at least into early August, expanding sidewalk dining space and catering to pedestrians to try to boost downtown business.
City Council liked how it went in the May 29-31 test weekend enough and according to public feedback in an online survey, to extend Open Streets for two more months before reevaluating it again. Council made its decision at its regular meeting last Thursday, June 4.
The next Open Streets will be in a week, June 19-21, with social distancing restrictions still likely in place this month. Gov. Roy Cooper’s phase three of reopening could start as early as the July Fourth weekend, the second Open Streets scheduled ahead. July is the sole month to go on the schedule of both the first and third (July 17-19) weekends. The last one, for now, is July 31-Aug. 2. That totals five Open Streets in just over a two-month span, May 29 to Aug. 2.
Council members voting for Open Streets twice per month were Jennifer Hensley, Lyndsey Simpson and Jerry Smith. Mayor Barbara Volk and Councilman Jeff Miller preferred once per month. The decision was compromised between scrapping the plan or conducting it weekly.
Council plans to decide in July how and how much longer to extend Open Streets — perhaps into fall leaf season.
Staging Open Streets some upcoming weekends enables merchants to compare their sales and customer volumes of Open Streets weekends to when vehicles flow along Main as usual. Merchants surveyed were split about how much more customer traffic came in than usual May 29-31.
Downtown Economic Development Director Lew Holloway is the point guard, for Open Streets. He shared results of city surveys and those on merchants’ social media pages, and in-person feedback from business owners and their customers.
Safe and relaxing were patrons’ common description of dining on sidewalks with no cars rumbling by, Holloway said. He said many respondents urged using part of Main Street for even more spaced-apart dining or retail space and revenue flow, for a somewhat more crowded and thus festive feel and perhaps with the city booking live music.
Several outdoor diners and shoppers who The Tribune spoke with May 29-31 echoed that wish. Some want shade benches.
Most of the 40 merchants (71 percent of whom are retailers) and especially the 95 customers surveyed by the city were pleased with the Open Streets test, Holloway reported.
Three-fourths of those surveyed want Open Streets again. One in four prefer once a month. City Manager John Connet noted the city pays overtime to police and public works staff on hand to enforce vehicular road closure and to act as security.
“We also had zero problems with the sometimes problematic sections of the homeless and teen population,” Police Lt. Mike Vesely said of Open Streets May 29-31. The Black Lives Matter rally on the edge of downtown Saturday stayed peaceful and on the police lot.
Merely 18 percent of merchants surveyed want Open Streets scrapped. Closing Main to traffic greatly reduces parking spaces. Bill “Sparky” Deveraux on social media opposes any Main traffic closure. The “classic car enthusiast” misses car shows held along with Music on Main on Fridays.
He cautioned many elderly shoppers/diners might stay away, without handicapped parking or having to park afar then walk. Few outdoor diners The Tribune spoke with said a long walk from a lot deters their returning.
There will be 255 more spaces in the upcoming new parking deck by Church and Fourth. City Council decided June 4 the deck will be four stories — not three or five — as a $6.49-million project.
Several diners who spoke with The Tribune were pleased. The French Broad: A Kitchen & Wine Bar at 342 N. Main filled all seven sidewalk dining tables Friday evening, May 29. They usually have four outdoor tables. Emily Pruitt and Dustin Nix said they regularly dine outside.
Jordan McCarson, Tiffany Dawn McCarson and Morgan Grindstaff got a table by landscaped bushes. The ladies said they like such an atmosphere, and it can have a calming effect on their young children if with them. Some wait staff said they like getting fresh air, serving outside.
The advantage of Open Streets over a street festival is local eateries (or at least a local food truck) are not eclipsed by food vendors from out of town.
Even a busker was a local. Andrew Torres, 21, played mandolin folk music May 29 as people strolled by near Mike’s on Main, at Fourth Avenue. He wore a scarf mask as he sat on a bench.
Torres, among others, welcomes expanding outdoor dining beyond sidewalk and parallel parking spaces, to other parking and perhaps even Main itself. More tables mean less waiting for diners, and more business. The state limits restaurants to half of their fire code capacity.
In the city survey, architect Mark Burginger wants “permanent closure of Main Street. Leave only the most necessary cross streets. We could create permanent areas … No more silly zig-zag Street to ‘calm’ the vehicles. Design the street areas for people and events.”
Some elder diners were more particular about dining ambiance and vehicle noise, while younger diners speaking to The Tribune indicated they will dine outside even when traffic goes by on Main.