ROCKLAND – Outdoor seating flowing into the street, art displays along the center line, musicians, children’s activities, neighborly socialization at a distance, and for many, a creative lure designed to jumpstart Rockland’s downtown economy.
Using a suggestion by Maine Governor Janet Mills as a way to slowly, safely re-invigorate consumer interests, some Rockland City Council officials, along with several downtown business and restaurant owners, are envisioning regular closures of Rockland’s Main Street throughout the month of June for a pedestrian-friendly venue.
And, for some, the bigger question remains, can the street closure be a permanent, long-term development?
According to Councilor Ed Glaser, during the Monday, May 4 agenda-setting meeting, the idea of opening Main Street to pedestrians allows the City to use minimal-expense measures to emotionally and financially support area businesses. In the process, the events would emotionally support the residents overall.
“[The shutdown] is hard for the whole town,” said Glaser. “And one of the things that may help the whole town is feeling like the downtown is something for everybody now, as opposed to just for people who have a lot of money. So, having a gathering space with entertainment may well be good for everybody in town. Whether it brings in tourists is almost the second part of this. It’s really for us.”
As of now, restaurants are allowed to reopen June 1, though several plan to continue with the curbside and delivery method they’ve adapted to in the previous month.
The questions of when and how the closures proceed are still to be hammered out prior to voting on the order during the Monday, May 11, City Council meeting.
Will the closed portion stretch to Talbot Ave. or Summer Street? Will the hours be reserved for weekends only? Mornings, evenings, all day?
If closures occur during the week, should delivery trucks be required to deliver to back doors, rear parking lots? How will customers of curbside pickup get to their orders if they must park far away?
Will businesses offering curbside pickup lose that customer base that utilized the service because of the social distancing it allowed; and, for those restaurants, customers, and health concerns that aren’t ready to participate until July or later, would a street closure of June, only, be too soon?
“In talking with business owners, we all understand that we need to do something special to change consumer behavior,” said David Gogel, executive director of Rockland Main Street. “Anything we can do to draw attention to our great businesses downtown is going to be important, and this idea does that, in principle, but also takes into consideration the health concerns that we are all thinking of.”
Though several residents and business owners emailed concerns regarding the haste of the proposal, those letter writers also expressed enthusiasm for the overall concept. The sidewalks aren’t wide enough to provide safe pedestrian passage, or when waiting to enter one of the small, limited-capacity shops along the way, wrote Susan Deutsch. Opening to pedestrian traffic would allow less restrictive movement, and may keep the street’s economy from reverting back to it’s history of 15 years ago when storefronts were boarded up, and the street was just a drive-by, she said.
“Meet me on Main Street,” said resident Skye Hurst. “We need each other. I’m only one, and I need you all. I want to ask in person, ‘how are you doing? What can I do to help?’ We are Rockland, a community taking one step at a time together. Hopefully I’ll see you soon on Main Street.”
Others, such as Rockland City Councilor and downtown business co-owner Ben Dorr, noted the importance of emotionally supporting small business owners.
“The anxiety around trying to figure out how to safely reopen a business on Main Street is a real and challenging thing,” said Dorr. “As a council member, I’m torn in two different directions because I want to see something happen from a Council perspective, but then as a business owner, I feel really deeply for the rest of the people that are on Main Street, because I’m on of them. So I think that we need to really respect the feelings that our Main Street business owners have when we talk about the changes that we want to make.... Even if its a small step towards a long term goal... it’s really important that people feel emotionally supported right now.”
“There’s a lot of nervousness and worry around how to do this correctly and safely,” he said.
Along with the questions of supply and demand comes questions of traffic. Should nearby one-way streets, such as Union Street, be temporarily converted to two-way?
Since Main Street (U.S. Route 1) is a State road, approval must come from Maine Department of Transportation. David Allen, Midcoast region traffic engineer for the DOT is already in the process of determining what’s feasible, according to Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell. Luttrell told members of City Council that Allen finds the idea exciting, and: “wants to try to do everything he can to help us out and make sure we can do this. But wants to do it in a safe and productive way, also.”
As for Main Street and Rockland residents:
“We have a lot of volunteers who are anxious to help us pull this off should we be able to move forward with it,” said Gogel.
RESTARTING MAINE’S ECONOMY
GOVERNOR JANET MILLS
STAGE 2, JUNE
Stage 2 contemplates a continued prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people and the 14-day quarantine on people entering Maine. All businesses that have been open may remain open. At-risk people should stay home when possible. Employees in legal and professional fields may return to offices, including State employees, as needed.
OPENINGS PERMITTED PER CHECKLIST STANDARDS
• Lodging (Open to Maine residents and out-of-state residents who have completed quarantine guidelines.)
• Campgrounds/RV parks (Open to Maine residents and out-of-state residents who have completed quarantine guidelines.)
• Day camps for Maine children and those who have met the 14 day quarantine requirement
• Coastal State Parks, with some services
• Fitness and Exercise Gyms
• Nail Technicians
• All retail businesses