BELFAST, Maine — A temporary program intended to help Belfast restaurateurs survive the COVID-19 pandemic by encouraging outside dining is on its way to becoming permanent.
Belfast city councilors unanimously voted earlier this month to bring the Curbside Belfast program back to the downtown streets this summer. Participating restaurants and other businesses will be able to set up tables on two adjacent parking spaces. Last summer, 13 businesses participated in the program, with some owners telling city officials that without the program, they might not have survived.
The city extended the program throughout the year, though not many used the outside seating option during the colder months. Nathaniel Baer of Downshift Coffee on Main Street was one who did.
“The outdoor space has been a key to our ability to keep our doors open,” he said Thursday. “We’re really looking forward to having it for the next six months.”
Baer set up colorful Adirondack chairs in the parking spaces next to his business, which were blocked off by Jersey barriers and traffic barricades decorated with flower boxes. On a sunny April afternoon, customers were taking advantage of the outside seating to sip coffee or to wait to place an order.
“I think it’s helped the people in town,” Jesse Soto, a downtown merchant, said of the Curbside Belfast program. “Especially here — it’s great.”
The 2021 version of the program will look similar to the one officials rolled out in a hurry last May, although City Manager Erin Herbig said that the city has used some of its COVID relief funds to buy new barriers.
“So they’ll have a nice, refined look. A little bit updated from last summer,” she said at the April 6 City Council meeting.
City staff has proposed that program participants pay an annual lease fee of $1,512 for the use of the space, but recommended that councilors waive the fee for this coming summer.
“Folks are still struggling,” Herbig said at the meeting.
Councilors agreed to waive the fee, with some saying they thought it was too expensive and would like to revisit it before implementing it next year.
“I would hate for any business to be deterred by any monetary situation,” City Councilor Brenda Bonneville said.
Councilors also discussed the city staff’s “strong recommendation” that participating businesses should build a raised platform for their curbside areas. Councilor Mike Hurley said he had spoken with restaurateurs who told him that would cost “thousands of dollars” and just be impossible.
Bub Fournier, the director of code and planning for the city, said that the platform is important in part because Belfast is hilly.
“The steep slopes in the town, particularly on Main Street, they’re not a great place to enjoy a meal or a drink,” he said. “This would provide a better dining experience and be compliant with accessibility guidelines.”
Herbig said that she has heard from restaurateurs who are concerned about how they would move and store the platforms. The city’s public works department can help with both those things, she said.
“It is our hope that this will continue to be a really collaborative effort, and that we will elevate this to not just be a pandemic response but will be part of our community six months a year,” she said.
Councilor Mary Mortier agreed, adding that she found that last summer’s outside dining opportunities added something special to the city.
“It brought a liveliness to our downtown, COVID or not,” she said. “It brought interactions to our downtown that people are looking for. Other countries have been having streetside dining or cafes for millennia. We’re just catching up.”