This Thursday, May 28, 2020 photo shows Main Street in Rockland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― When COVID-19 abruptly changed life last year, officials here sprang into action to help downtown restaurants and retailers operate and survive under new pandemic restrictions.

The city tried outright street closures, reducing Main Street ― which doubles as U.S. 1 ― to one lane of traffic. It allowed restaurants to erect pop-up dining areas in parking spaces to serve customers more safely outside.

Despite good intentions that yielded some positive results, most stakeholders said there was too much confusion surrounding the rollout and the prevalence of concrete barriers and plastic traffic dividers left downtown looking like a construction zone.

Now, city officials are trying to build on these missteps. While they have started a conversation about what Main Street will look like this summer, some say a few pandemic-borne ideas should remain after the public health threat has subsided to make downtown more pedestrian friendly.

“Last year it was a one-size fits all kind of situation,” Ada’s Kitchen and Main Street Markets owner Jenn Rockwell said. “But we can be everything to everyone and also accommodate the needs of the general public to create a more long-term creative vision for downtown and how people interact with Main Street.”

At a city council workshop Wednesday night, Rockwell was among downtown business owners who offered feedback on last summer’s Main Street plan, as well as plans for the future. It was the first of many conversations expected over the next several months as officials create a downtown plan for another summer in the pandemic.

The city hopes to have a plan in place by Memorial Day when visitors start flocking to the coast. However, since U.S. Route 1 is a state-maintained road, the Maine Department of Transportation must approve any changes Rockland wants to make to traffic patterns there.

City officials acknowledged that last year’s rollout for street closures and lane reductions could have gone better. Better signage and additional spaces for parking could improve the downtown experience this summer, they say. Officials hope to increase communication with businesses and the public and create a designated location for delivery trucks so traffic continues to flow.

“We do understand that last year probably wasn’t the best rollout,” Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said. “We agree that the aesthetics were not great …. We do not want to have a construction zone this summer.”

Nearly all of the city’s restaurant owners said they would like to extend outdoor-seating offerings in parking spaces and on closed side streets this summer.

“Having that outdoor seating for us made the difference. I don’t know if we’d be open today if we didn’t have that outdoor seating,” Dan Pease, owner of Rock Harbor Pub and Brewery, said.

Most also favored reducing Main Street to one-lane traffic again this summer. Since traffic only runs northbound on Rockland’s Main Street the lane reduction essentially created a broader space for pedestrians and allowed restaurants and pedestrians to sprawl into the roadway.

Traffic moved slower down Main Street, many business owners said, noting its positive effect.

But Heidi Neal, owner of Loyal Biscuit, said many customers who would typically visit its Rockland Main Street location traveled instead to the Rockport location last summer to avoid the one-lane traffic pattern.

With many options on the table, business owners and city officials expressed the importance of collaboration and open dialogue. They acknowledged public engagement is key to the success of downtown.

“I’m just hoping that whatever we do, it helps the businesses,” Main Street resident Amy Files said.