After new outdoor seating rates were set by the Bangor City Council for downtown bars and restaurants, some business owners are wondering whether the benefits of outdoor seating justify increasingly high costs to offer it.
Councilors said the new rate system for outdoor seating was implemented to create equity among businesses, but some business owners said they feel they’re being discouraged from offering it altogether.
In late March, the city council changed the fee Downtown District businesses pay for their outdoor seating that uses public space. The new rate of $2.78 per square foot of outdoor seating will take effect in stages over the next three years. This year, businesses pay one-third of the new rate this year, then two-thirds in 2023 and the full fee in 2024.
That’s an increase from the previous system where fees ranged from $50 to $500 depending on whether a restaurant sold alcohol and how many outdoor seats were available. The irregular system resulted in restaurants paying anywhere from 32 cents to $1.25 per square foot.
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Councilor Dan Tremble said the new rate system was designed to be more equitable for downtown eateries because now everyone pays based on how much space they take up, rather than how many seats fill a space.
“Not everybody is going to be happy, but we wanted something that was fair for everyone,” he said. “It’s not a money maker for the city. It’s about being able to manage downtown seating.”
Outdoor seating in downtown Bangor grew in popularity during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, when diners sought socially distanced, outdoor alternatives to indoor dining. That summer, businesses could also create “parklets” by using a parking space for outdoor seating as well. In 2020, there was no fee for that. A fee of $500 per parking space for outdoor seating was created in 2021, but the city only charged half that for the first summer.
Now, businesses can still use parking spaces for outdoor seating under the new structure, but they have to pay the full fee of $500 per parking space. Up to two street parking spaces for outdoor dining are permitted for restaurant use between May 1 and November 1.
When 2 Feet Brewing on Columbia Street started offering outdoor seating five years ago, owner Nit-Noi Ricker, paid the city $200 to place four seats on the recently widened sidewalk outside. She said she added the outdoor seating to show passers-by the space was a restaurant, attract tourists and allow patrons to bring their dogs.
In the years that followed, Ricker said she paid $250 for the outdoor seating, but this year she paid $340 for the two parking spaces she uses for seating. Next year, she’ll have to pay $648, then $973 in 2024 when the new rates take full effect.
The two parking spaces Ricker uses allows her to bring her total seating capacity to 39 seats total, whereas she can only fit 22 seats inside. She said families or large groups tend to gravitate toward the outdoor space because they have more room to push tables and chairs together.
Ricker said she’s now looking for a new location for her business to avoid paying nearly $1,000 for her outdoor seating area.
The new rates especially hurt smaller businesses that previously paid a fraction of what larger businesses with dozens of outdoor seats, she said.
“I am definitely not going to pay $1,000 in two years,” Ricker said. “To have that $1,000 thrown at me on top of everything else is crazy. My business license is only $450.”
Tim Gallon, owner of Black Bear Brewing on Exchange Street in Bangor, said he has paid the city $250 to offer four tables on the sidewalk, “which are always the first to fill up,” since the location opened in 2018.
When the pandemic began in 2020, Gallon was also able to establish a patio in a handicap parking spot – which the city moved down the street – outside his business. The patio added about 20 seats to the roughly 40 seats indoors. He said the city waived the fee for using that outdoor space to allow businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic.
This summer, Gallon said he hasn’t been able to set up the patio yet, as the city has been sluggish to move the handicap parking spot and bring barriers for the space. The tables on the sidewalk are still available.
In future summers, Gallon said he planned to use two parking spaces for outdoor seating, but knowing he’ll have to pay $500 per parking space is making him reconsider.
Gallon said he feels outdoor seating is an important element to give a downtown life, especially during Maine’s short summer season, but when a city starts increasing costs, it discourages businesses from offering it.
While he said he understands the need to charge something, Gallon said he wishes the city held off on implementing the new rates, or eased into them more gradually to allow small businesses to recover from the pandemic. Gallon said he fears the increasing costs will drive businesses out of downtown Bangor altogether.
“Growing up in Bangor, you didn’t go downtown for anything,” he said. “When the mall came in, there were no restaurants or stores downtown and it was dumpy. Now there’s a resurgence downtown and people want to be there, but there’s no guarantee that will stay.”