Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Make lemonade out of lemons.”
Those reliable, if overused, bromides came again to mind last week with the publication of two letters relating to planning for Main Street Keene’s reemergence from the coronavirus wilderness. The first was submitted by City Councilor Mitchell Greenwald to the council requesting it consider expanding outdoor dining and retail sales on Main Street.
Among his suggestions are permitting expanded use of neighboring storefronts, use of parking spaces in front of establishments, temporarily closing one lane of Main Street traffic each way and reducing the downtown speed limit, with some of these being implemented on only specific days. The hope, he wrote, is not just to support downtown businesses as they begin to reestablish themselves, but also to “create an outdoor festival feeling that can continue beyond the Covid crisis.”
In a letter to the editor published in last weekend’s Sentinel, Keene resident Lee Porter made a similar pitch for expanded use of the downtown public spaces to help local restaurants get back on their feet. His ideas include making Main Street a pedestrian walkway on Thursday through Sunday nights, permitting expanded seating on the sidewalk and into a lane of Main Street, and city rentals of outdoor tables to restaurants, with establishments purchasing customized table umbrellas. While directed at helping restaurants through socially distanced reopening limitations, Porter’s letter notes the vitality of similar ideas elsewhere, and his ideas could be used in future, more normal times.
The two letters both address the immediate need Main Street establishments have for assistance while also proposing long-term ideas for downtown’s vibrancy. Fortunately, their writers are not alone in their thinking. When Greenwald’s letter was brought up at the council’s May 21 meeting, it came to light that a previously unannounced city task force was already considering similar proposals, with a goal of meeting near-term necessity and making longer-term lemonade.
The idea of the now-weeks-old task force, being called the Downtown Reopening Task Force — is to help City Manager Elizabeth Dragon be nimble in responding to rapid changes in reopening and other guidelines coming weekly if not daily from Concord. As Mayor George Hansel disclosed to the council, though, it is also “acting as a clearinghouse for ideas ... from community members, councilors and others.” He said it was already considering ideas like those proposed by Greenwald and thus referred his letter to the task force.
Dragon added to the mayor’s remarks later in the meeting and said the task force’s charge presented an opportunity to “think outside the box” to take advantage of current reduced traffic counts in planning Main Street’s reopening. As one example, she said shutting down Central Square one Sunday a month might be proposed to the council by the task force.
It’s a positive sign that bigger-picture ideas such as Greenwald’s and Porter’s — and apparently others — may be under active consideration. Times are tough indeed for restaurants, retailers and other businesses, and innovative thinking that aids them is to be applauded, particularly if it incorporates vision beyond the near term that might also strengthen downtown Keene as a magnet for the region.
The need to be nimble in times of emergency may provide justification, and any major task force recommendations seem likely to go through public process before the council. Still, all of Keene has a stake in downtown’s recovery and ongoing vitality. The task force, then, really should be more actively seeking ideas from Keene residents — and be public in discussing them.
Dragon noted anyone with ideas for helping reopen downtown businesses can email city Economic Development Director Med Kopczynski at firstname.lastname@example.org.