Business association wants Fredericton to steer clear of closing streets to vehicles
Uptown Saint John has asked its members for input on the issue
Bruce McCormack is pretty clear about how downtown Fredericton business owners feel about closing streets to vehicular traffic.
"They hate it. They friggin' hate it," said the general manager of Downtown Fredericton Inc., which represents about 600 businesses.
McCormack said his members are "dead set" against closing streets — even for just one day of the week.
Officials with the city of Fredericton are exploring a number of ways to help businesses get back on their feet as the province slowly lifts restrictions on operations.
Ken Forrest, the city's director of planning and development, has previously outlined the measures, which also include expanding the use of sidewalk patios and setting up dining areas in green spaces.
While McCormack appreciates the city's efforts to help businesses, he's hoping officials will steer around road closures.
"We do not like street closures in downtown," he said. "We have to with festivals because of the safety aspect, but for us to agree to close a lane in downtown Fredericton would be murder for most of those businesses. So we don't support it. Period."
McCormack said street closures are akin to construction zones — people avoid them at all costs. They see the detour signs and don't even bother trying to access the businesses along the closed section.
And with an aging population, if seniors can't be dropped off at the door of a restaurant, for example, they won't patronize the place, he said.
"It's just literally terrible for our businesses."
The one street closure that downtown businesses would endorse is the river-front parkway that stretches between Regent and Smythe streets, the one that leads to the Westmorland Street bridge, said McCormack.
But only on Sundays, since traffic on the bridge "is not that heavy" on Sundays, he said.
Yes, it would mean driving to the Princess Margaret Bridge to cross the river, but at least there aren't any businesses located along the route that would be impacted, said McCormack.
"So people can ... physical distance, they can walk. They could skateboard, they can roller–blade, they can bicycle in an area that's on the riverfront and it just expands that space.
"We're comfortable with that. There's no businesses on riverfront drive, so we're not going to impact them at all."
McCormack said bouncing back after the state of emergency will be tough enough for businesses, as they try to figure out how — and how much — to open.
After all, "bubbles" and "physical distancing" — concepts that didn't exist in the business lexicon before the pandemic — are making it difficult, especially for restaurants, to figure out how many people they can accommodate. McCormack also wonders how many people will actually feel safe enough to venture out.
"Some of them only have 50 seats. If you take out half … that's 20 seats and are they going to make enough money by opening 20 seats to keep the restaurant going?"
Saint John is also looking at ways to help businesses get back to business.
Nancy Tissington, the executive director of Uptown Saint John, said there are a number of measures on the table.
She knows that patrons have expressed a desire to close uptown streets like Canterbury to vehicular traffic.
"That's from the citizens. But it's easy when they don't own a business," said Tissington.
"I don't know that a street closure is going to bring back a strong economic recovery. I don't know the answer. If I thought that was the case, I would be jumping up and down and asking for it. But I'm not 100 per cent sure on that."
That's why she's asked her members what they think. Uptown Saint John recently hired a company to conduct a survey of uptown businesses. Tissington said owners were asked what they need to ramp up operations, including whether they'd like to see street closures.
By the end of Monday — the day the survey went out — 36 businesses had responded. Tissington expects to be able to draw some conclusions by next week and plans to pass the results on to city officials. She said the city's growth committee will discuss a number of initiatives at its next meeting before they're taken to council for final approval.
Tissington said there are a lot of layers to the discussion, including the opinions of those who live above street-level stores and restaurants.
It's also further complicated by the measures businesses have already taken to try to survive the pandemic restrictions.
"So for instance," she said, "if you think about shutting down Prince William, and meanwhile Cask and Kettle is only going to do takeout. Is that going to hinder people from coming or is that going to help?"
Shawn Verner, the co-owner of the Irish gastropub, has decided to continue only doing takeout while they figure out how to safely open amid government protocols.
Tissington wonders whether people will continue to do takeout if they can't drive right up to the business.
"So let's be cautious when we make these decisions," she said.
Fredericton is also trying to expand the use of sidewalk patios as a way to give restaurants more area to expand. The city will waive all fees for sidewalk patios, as has Moncton.
Tissington has already asked Saint John to waive fees for sidewalk patios, but no decision has been made.
She said some uptown Saint John restaurants who have operated patios before are reconsidering this year.
"They may not open their patio though because it costs so much money."
She said if patios can only hold half — or less — the number of diners, it may not make economic sense to open them.
While McCormack doesn't support closing streets, he does endorse the idea of creating dining areas in Fredericton's downtown green spaces.
City officials are also looking at providing picnic-table seating in public spaces like Officers' Square, Carleton Street and Barracks Square to give customers options for taking food out or having it delivered to those locations.
The move would help restaurants increase their business while allowing for physical distancing protocols.
"We're trying to increase seating capacity for these restaurants," said McCormack. "So where they can't do it in-house, we're trying to help them by putting it out in the green spaces."
Anne Poirier Basque, the executive director of Downtown Moncton, did not respond to messages left Tuesday.
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