Two months after Bangor city officials closed off part of Broad Street in the city’s downtown to vehicular traffic, and began allowing businesses to set up “parklets” outside their locations, most downtown business owners seem to agree that the measures have helped them as they struggle to keep business going during the pandemic.
Business is still down overall throughout the downtown area, but the ability for businesses to set up shop outside has allowed some to shrink their losses this year.
Rachel Dobbs, who owns Paddy Murphy’s with her husband, John, said that overall, the pedestrian-only area along West Market Square has been helpful to her business, and has created a vibrant atmosphere that has allowed them to stay steadily busy throughout the summer — despite the need for customers to stay six feet apart, and to wear masks when not seated at a table.
“We’re not crazy busy, but we’re busy enough that we can have most of our staff working hours that are close to normal, so we’re really happy with that,” she said. “It has been wonderful to look around West Market and see everyone’s outdoor seating full in the evenings because it makes for a friendly and fun atmosphere downtown.”
Nevertheless, business overall for most owners downtown is generally down at least 30 to 40 percent from years prior.
“It’s hard to know what is good and what is not so good, since nobody’s operating at full capacity,” said Betsy Lundy, downtown coordinator for the city of Bangor. “The people that seem to be doing well are still only operating at like 60 or 70 percent of their normal business.”
In addition to the Broad Street closure, the “parklets” — temporary seating in parking spaces adjacent to businesses — have been an even bigger success. Cory Ricker, who co-owns 2 Feet Brewing on Columbia Street with his wife, Nok-Noi, said their parklet may end up being one of the things that will help them survive.
“We love it. It’s been one of the high spots of this whole thing, because it’s dramatically increased our visibility. We hope we get to keep it,” he said. “It’s been super close for us, financially, and we’re still not sure what’s going to happen. But I think without the parklet it would be way, way worse.”
Right now, the Broad Street closure is set to end on Sept. 7, unless the city council votes to extend it into October. If the overall consensus is that businesses and customers like the closure, it might come back next year — regardless of the status of the pandemic.
One criticism Lundy said she’d heard from a few businesses is that, should the new measures become a regular seasonal occurrence, better signage directing both vehicular and pedestrian traffic is needed. There are still drivers who may not be aware that Broad Street as both a throughway and for parking can still be accessed from Bangor Alley, a short street that connects York Street and a bridge over the Kenduskeag Stream to Broad Street.
“I think we need to be extra clear to everybody how to navigate any changes in traffic patterns,” Lundy said. “Obviously, this is still a new thing, and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this. If it’s something we want to keep, we’ll want to invest in signage and other infrastructure that makes it better for everybody.”
Downtown Bangor has seen remarkable development over the past decade, both in terms of new businesses opening up, and in the amount of apartment space that has become available. Bangor’s code enforcement officer, Jeff Wallace, said that despite the vast economic uncertainty that is roiling the state and the nation, his office has not seen any decline in the number of construction permits requested from people working on new projects, be they residential or commercial, downtown or elsewhere in the city.
“There was about a two-week lull, right after everything hit, where this office was a ghost town,” Wallace said. “And then in April it picked right up, and it’s been steady and pretty normal ever since.”
Lundy said one of the looming uncertainties is what the holiday season will look like for retailers, and if it will be enough to give them a cushion to see them through the leaner months of January and February, which are usually the slowest months of the year.
“The struggle to compete with giant online retailers is always there, but it’s even more of a struggle this year, since who knows if people will want to go out and shop in person like they normally do,” she said.
One of the silver linings for businesses of all stripes — not just retailers, but also restaurants — is that it has forced people to develop a much more robust web presence. Downtown retailers such as The Rock & Art Shop, Valentine Footwear, One Lupine Fiber Arts, Accents Home Furnishings and Decor and City Drawers have greatly expanded their online inventory, alongside established web stores from shops including Central Street Farmhouse, The Briar Patch, Mexicali Blues and Maine Jewelry & Art.
“I think if you were able to start selling online, that definitely puts you in a better position, should things shut down again or something else happens,” Lundy said. “The pandemic has forced everybody to pivot, and making those changes to their website and social media is one of the good things to come out of it.”