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ROCKLAND, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation is working out details of a plan to close Main Street to vehicular traffic next month and let businesses and restaurants utilize the roadway as an open-air market to serve customers while better adhering to social distancing standards.
City Manager Tom Luttrell told city councilors Monday night that he expected recommendations from the department to be handed down to the city by Tuesday. The plan is expected to be voted on at next week’s City Council meeting, though city officials say it will continue to evolve it through May as they consult with downtown stakeholders.
The idea of turning Main Street into a pedestrian plaza has gained widespread support as an innovative way to help businesses safely serve customers as the economy slowly reopens following closures and restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But some downtown business owners want the city to proceed cautiously in order to allow for daily deliveries and the continuation of curbside pick-up.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea. Exciting, vibrant and community focused. But [I] strongly feel it should be limited to weekends, or Friday and Saturday nights,” Jen Rockwell, owner of Main Street Markets and Ada’s Kitchen, said in a statement submitted to city councilors. “I want to make sure customers have the simplicity of curbside pick-up that they are used to.”
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The idea to close Main Street to traffic was floated after Gov. Janet Mills released her phased plan to reopen Maine’s economy. The plan is a framework and advancing through the phases will depend on public health data. But as of June 1 — barring any spike in COVID-19 cases — restaurants and retail businesses will be allowed to reopen to in-person service as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.
The time constraints for the proposed closure, as well as how traffic will be diverted around Main Street — which is surrounded by one-way streets — have not yet been set in stone and will hinge on the recommendations from the Department of Transportation. The exact perimeters for the closure have not been decided, though it will likely start at the intersection of Park and Main streets and end around Talbot Avenue, Luttrell said.
Since the city began considering the idea, Luttrell said it “has gotten quite the buzz going around town from both people in support but also people telling us to be cautious.”
Over the past two decades, Rockland’s downtown has been praised for transforming itself into a cultural destination. As businesses try to weather the economic storm created by the pandemic, some in Rockland worry the vibrancy of downtown could fade.
“Most of us remember what Main Street was like 15 years ago, [full of] vacant and boarded up storefronts,” a Rockland resident said in an email to Luttrell. “We certainly don’t want to see Main Street disappear as shops are forced to close because they do not have the customers to maintain a viable business.”
Closing down Main Street is not a new concept in Rockland. Twice a year the city shuts down the street for festivals, including a summer solstice celebration and a pub crawl associated with the North Atlantic Blues Festival.
City Councilor Valli Geiger said pedestrian-friendly streets have been successful in other cities, such as Burlington, Vermont. However, Geiger was concerned that state and city officials could get too wrapped up in the planning process to implement the closure in a timely manner.
“This is a radical idea [for the Department of Transportation], but it was also an idea that was mentioned by the governor at a press conference a week ago as one of the ways to get appropriate social distancing,” Geiger said. “I’m worried that we could end up spending months [planning] or come up with a plan that is such a small change that it doesn’t do what we wanted to do.”
However, based on talks he has had with Department of Transportation Regional Engineer David Allen, Luttrell said the department is in full support of being creative when it comes to street closures during the pandemic as a way to help businesses operate.
“I know the [transportation] commissioner basically said let’s get out there and be creative,” Luttrell said. “We just need to wait for DOT to weigh in [on the plan] to see what we can and can’t do.”
People who wish to submit public comments on the proposal can email Luttrell or city councilors, or request to join the May 11 City Council meeting, which will be conducted using the video-conferencing platform Zoom.