Keene has long embraced the image of its downtown as quintessentially New England: tree-lined roads, wide sidewalks and landscaped touches welcoming visitors and locals alike to a variety of artsy shops and services, restaurants, bars and more. It just seems like the kind of downtown where you could picture yourself shopping — window or otherwise — and grabbing coffee or something to eat, maybe outside.

But until two years ago, outdoor dining options in the Elm City were somewhat limited. Then came a global pandemic that made indoor communal dining treacherous, and like communities all over the world, Keene stepped up to make it easier for diners to go “out” to eat, aiding local businesses in the process, by easing restrictions on outdoor eating areas, allowing almost any eatery that asked to set up outdoor space. Keene waived its $100 application fee for those permits. In some cases, the city even ceded public spaces to help the cause.

The same dynamic was playing out all over.

And now, many of those businesses are looking to make offering outdoor dining the norm as people increasingly treat the pandemic as something that’s “over.”

A N.H. Public Radio report last week looked at the issue, finding while not every business that offered outdoor seating during the pandemic is doing so this year, applications remain high. In Portsmouth, 44 applications were received this year, compared to eight the year before the pandemic.

In Keene, as elsewhere, officials have found helping, or allowing, such businesses to expand adds to the overall feel of community, but not without some warts. Some downtown merchants have complained that foot traffic and parking for their businesses were compromised by the accommodations made to outdoor dining. The same has been reported in Portsmouth.

Here, the city used what it calls “parklets” — essentially wooden barriers set up in on-street parking spaces that create a contained area for seating — to expand outdoor options for restaurants that didn’t have wide-enough sidewalk space or courtyards. But even those posed legal issues for the city if used long-term. The issue was whether the city could regulate long-term retail activity in roadways — something the Legislature has never given municipalities jurisdiction over.

More to the point might be whether it makes sense for the city to offer up limited downtown parking to the benefit of a single business. In this case, the parklet was planned to allow Machina ArtBar and Kitchen to expand its outdoor seating into spaces on Court Street. Neighboring businesses complained their customers were being deprived of those spaces. Machina countered that the spaces weren’t usable anyway because their existing seating made it impossible to park close to the curb — perhaps not the best defense, since it meant they were already encroaching upon the public space.

The episode demonstrated that however much the city wants to help eateries expand their outdoor presence, the key will be doing so fairly and without infringing too much on the public’s use of the space. After all, outdoor dining is a beneficial addition to the downtown, but there are other things happening on Main Street and its offshoots. It is not a food court.

Those are the challenges, and we feel the city’s staff and business community are up to resolving them. It may well be worth it.

Nashua’s Director of Economic Development Tim Cummings says that city’s in the process of expanding outdoor dining, giving restaurants a larger space to have more tables.

“It creates a more vibrant downtown corridor. It’s definitely a place where people feel the energy and the activation of the area,” he said.

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