Walla Walla City Council members expressed great excitement and support for a plan that will revitalize the downtown area for businesses recovering from the coronavirus pandemic during their virtual meeting Wednesday night.
Members unanimously approved many measures that will allow for outdoor seating on sidewalks, construction of four “parklets” or structures for outdoor dining, and a plaza for a large outdoor seating area.
The plan also mentions closing a downtown side street to traffic on a weekend evening or two every week throughout the summer to allow merchants, restaurants, musicians, artists and other businesses to occupy the space, with strings of lights hanging above to decorate the street.
Disinfectants and masks will be provided to businesses. The city will supply tables, chairs and umbrellas for these areas, which will be given to the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation for potential future events.
The ambiance of these outdoor environments would revamp the downtown area to attract people to businesses and safely expand seating capacity for restaurants and wineries, leaders said.
Ben Leitch a co-owner of the retail shop downtown Thirty Fifth + Butter, plans to reopen by June 5. He said he thinks the city is making all the right moves to make downtown more approachable.
“Even if they don’t spend a single dollar ... on my store, because I don’t need tables and chairs ... every dollar of spending still helps me eventually because if people are able to come downtown and eat at these restaurants, then they are going to be more willing to come in my store, where otherwise they wouldn’t have come downtown at all,” he said.
Leitch said he is blown away by the efforts the city, the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Foundation have made to help businesses stay viable.
“That’s what we need. We need everyone to survive this,” he said.
Plans are focused around a road closure on Colville Street from Main Street to Rose Street for the outdoor dining and on First Avenue from Main to Alder Street for a plaza, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.
The city expects to have all of these projects complete by July 1 and go through the summer, possibly until October, with the support of the Downtown Foundation and merchants, he said.
About $1.02 million was allocated to the city in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars. The city plans to use roughly $250,000 of this for all of these new amenities including the tables, chairs, umbrellas and stringed lights, he said.
This will also cover the cost of materials for four outdoor “parklets,” or sidewalk extensions, but restaurants will pay for the labor to build them. The initial four would act as a pilot project with the possibility of building more over the next several years, Shawa said.
“Outdoor dining benefits restaurants by expanding safe seating capacity. It helps them start achieving some of the revenues that they dearly missed out on over the last several months,” Shawa said.
He said epidemiologists are pointing out that infection of COVID-19 is caused by the duration of exposure.
“We now know that outdoor dining is healthy and that it reduces the potential of transmitting COVID-19 by being in the open air,” he said.
Colville Street Patisserie co-owner Tiffany Cain said her business is currently getting ready to reopen for Phase 2 safely. Referring to the plans to close a portion of Colville Street, she said it is an exciting way to reconfigure Walla Walla during this time.
“For businesses that do have a dining-in situation, if you are short on your outdoor patio space, this kind of eliminates that problem, which is huge,” Cain said. “Even for some restaurants, just having a few more tables outside can make a big difference.”
She said she thinks it might alleviate concerns for people who are nervous about having to go inside to eat because it is kind of the “danger zone” for long periods.
“I think people might be a little more relaxed about knowing you could just go outside,” she said.
City Council approved a number of measures Wednesday to allow these projects, such as relaxing some code standards and allocating the CARES funds. Plans are still being worked out as city employees meet with downtown businesses and the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.
These projects came out of several previous conversations the city had with businesses and the Downtown Foundation and were the result of ideas and suggestions from local business owners, Shawa said. Identifying clusters of restaurants outside of the downtown core to help might also be on the table, he said.
Council member Susan Nakonieczny praised Shawa for his work on this project.
“The work is critical for our city to return to positive growth,” she said. “Right now, experience has shown that unless a business can depend on locals, surviving during the in-between seasons is difficult. We need to start with the base of locals shopping, dining business and then make the effort to encourage tourism.”
Council member Ted Koehler, who voiced praise for the plan, also urged city leaders to consider using the park downtown for tables and chairs and allowing flexibility for restaurants or businesses in other areas of town to use a section of their parking lot for outdoor events or tent sales.
“I heard in the presentation and from other Council members, I heard flexibility, I heard proactive, I heard partnerships and safety, all being mindful of safety, I like every one of those words, and I like that were involved in that,” he said.