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A Portland city council committee on Thursday fast-tracked a plan to close downtown streets to vehicle traffic beginning June 1, allowing restaurants and retailers to expand operations onto sidewalks and other outdoor spaces.
The proposal reflected “pretty dire times for a lot of businesses” said Councilor Justin Costa, chair of the economic development committee. He said city officials were “trying to think outside of the box.”
An original plan to close six downtown streets was winnowed by the committee down to five: Dana, Exchange, Milk, Middle and Wharf streets. A full city council vote is expected to come at a meeting on Monday. Many commenters expressed support for the idea, with some calling it a “lifeline” for businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Portland should be making outdoor retail and dining as accessible as possible,” said Erin Kiley, owner of Portland Flea-For-All and a commercial property owner.
Some retailers voiced concern that expanded dining services would crowd out potential shoppers at their retail spaces. Sal Scaglione, who owns the jewelry store Abacus in the Old Port, called it “costly and discriminatory” to non-restaurant retailers in an email to the city.
Some larger streets in the city, including Congress and Fore Streets, are not eligible to be shut down because they are managed by the Maine Department of Transportation, not Portland, said City Manager Jon Jennings said.
Mike Wiley, a chef at seafood restaurant Eventide on Middle Street and co-owner of Big Tree Hospitality, said that he was “just thrilled” with the idea. Wiley said that restaurants were considering expanding on the idea, mobilizing outdoor “pop-up” restaurant events downtown.
“I don’t want to say that our bacon has been saved, but this has really been a source of solace in these scary times,” he said.
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