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Bangor, Portland, Belfast and Rockland are among the Maine communities that are considering changes to their downtowns to make them more pedestrian friendly as many businesses struggle to make it through the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions.
Earlier this month, Rockland city councilors approved the closure of the community’s Main Street, starting in June. The council appointed a task force to determine if the closure will be for the entire month or only at certain times, such as Friday and weekend nights, and whether it should be extended through the summer.
Turning the downtown section of the street into a pedestrian mall is meant to give local merchants and restaurants an opportunity to generate more business as they more fully reopen after coronavirus-related restrictions.
“Reopening the state is not just about reopening businesses in a way that they were before,” Rockland Councilor Nate Davis said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, not just for Main Street in Rockland but around the world, to try to reinvision aspects of how society is constructed.”
This is the challenge for businesses and communities that are still reeling from the virus and restrictions put in place to slow its spread. We understand that these times are uncertain and difficult and that businesses are under immense pressure to keep their doors open and to pay their employees. But, this is “a golden opportunity,” as Anne Ball, the program director of the Maine Downtown Center, told the Bangor Daily News.
This is a time for communities and businesses to experiment and innovate, Ball said. And, at the same time, to make their downtowns more accessible to everyone, especially those who are walking or riding bikes.
One benefit of the changes that are being proposed in many communities — street closures, using parking spaces for retail and restaurant seating — is that they are inexpensive and temporary. If they don’t work, they can be changed or abandoned. If, on the other hand, they are well received, they can be expanded or made permanent.
In Belfast, restaurateurs and retailers are allowed to operate in public parking spots, green spaces and some other downtown sites. In an initiative called “ Curbside Belfast,” restaurants and retailers will be allowed to erect tents in parking spaces in front of their business into October.
Bar Harbor is considering something similar.
In Bangor, a proposal to close three streets — during at least some portions of the day — met a lukewarm reception from some downtown business owners and has largely been put on a shelf by city officials. That is too bad.
The proposal aimed to create more outdoor space for dining and retail sales. In addition to the street closures, it proposed “parklets,” essentially parking spaces that would be converted to outdoor dining, and curbside pick-up zones.
These changes remain worth considering, even when the pandemic has passed, because they could make Bangor more welcoming, while improving the city’s sometimes confusing traffic flow.
City Manager Cathy Conlow said her staff and the city council were open to new ideas from business owners about how to best help them weather the pandemic and its economic consequences.
The challenge for city planners, business owners and others is to view such changes not simply as a response to a virus but as an opportunity to remake their downtowns in a way that is more welcoming to the people who live, work and visit them. Like others, we wish the circumstances were different, but the virus has given communities a rare opportunity to reimagine themselves. They should take it.