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The towns of Camden and Freeport have approved expansions of outdoor retail and restaurant activities, in hopes of enticing visitors and residents to patronize downtown businesses.
Camden’s select board recently approved the addition of picnic tables and waste receptacles at the town’s village green.
The land for the green was donated to the town in the 1920s by a group of patrons led by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, a Philadelphia philanthropist and the daughter of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, founder of Curtis Publishing Co., according to VillageSoup.com.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Bok also donated an ocean view lot to build the town’s library, land adjoining the library that became what residents today call the Bok Amphitheater and land that became the town’s Harbor Park. Curtis bought waterfront property, built the Camden Yacht Club and donated them to the town.
Bok hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to design the green, according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
The select board received a letter from one resident who said it was a bad idea to add picnic tables to the green, for reasons that included a claim that doing so would violate the Bok family’s intention to maintain the park as a public space and not for commercial activity.
But Bok’s great-grandson, Gideon Bok, wrote a letter to support the proposal.
“The restaurants in our area are struggling to make it work in the face of COVID-19, and unfortunately some of them are facing the real possibility of closing, or are already in the process of doing so,” he wrote. “Offering takeout is the only reasonable and safe route to success, without putting their customers and staff at risk.”
Of his great-grandmother, he added, “I also have the feeling that she would love to share some take out from Long Grain, for example, at a picnic table on the Village Green on a nice summer evening with loved ones.”
The board agreed.
“I find that people are what we owe our allegiance to, and not things,” said Selectman Marc Ratner. “Right now people are hurting more than ever and doing remarkable things to try to keep their businesses open with takeout.”
Ratner noted the board has heard from a number of restaurants that need help.
“If we don’t take care of our people, then we might have a village green that has an empty town around it,” he said.
Selectman Taylor Benzie said structured outdoor access could make it easier for residents and visitors to venture downtown and make it a little more likely that they would spend money, in addition to being safer from a health standpoint.
The board’s vice chair, Alison McKellar, added that she’s heard from residents outside of the business community who supported the idea.
“People want to be able to enjoy our beautiful town, whether it’s visitors or residents, and it’s safer to be outside,” she said.
The board unanimously approved the proposal, along with installation of waste receptacles and with the provision that the structures will be temporary.
In Freeport, the state Department of Transportation has approved the town’s proposal to close a portion of Main Street to vehicular traffic on Saturdays and Sundays starting with the Fourth of July, according to a news release.
The town expects the use of vehicle travel lanes to provide more space for outdoor business activities and for patrons to maintain safe social distancing. Traffic will be detoured to Depot Street. The closures will begin at 8 a.m. on Saturdays and end at 8 p.m. on Sundays for a trial period that covers two weekends. It will continue through Labor Day weekend if an evaluation process shows the project is helping businesses.
"The town council wanted to try something different, although this idea is not completely unique,” council chair John Egan said in the release. “Downtown Freeport is an attractive place to walk around town, and we're trying to highlight that. We hope this will remind locals and visitors about our accessible downtown and return some energy to our community.”
The initiative unfolded when Peter Joseph, Freeport’s town manager, started receiving calls and emails from businesses owners and residents asking for a street closure or other town response almost as soon as stores began closing due to COVID-19 concerns.
The town planner, Caroline Pelletier, drafted an emergency ordinance to allow businesses to move activities outdoors upon reopening, which was approved by the council in mid-May. Representatives of local businesses and town agencies also provided input.
Joseph continued, “We realized during that process that although some businesses had a desire to move some of their retail operations outdoors, the compact layout of our town center did not provide the space for them to do that safely without further constricting sidewalks, which are already less than six feet wide in some places.
"Putting sales racks and displays on the sidewalks in these locations isn't possible because it would cause accessibility issues for users of wheelchairs and strollers, and would prohibit pedestrian users from maintaining safe social distances from other pedestrians.”
Before settling on a final proposal, two different surveys were deployed to more than 500 business leaders and residents seeking input. The surveys showed that more than 70% of respondents favored the proposal, but called for some modification of the original draft, including curtailment of the schedule and elimination of a detour.
The group also interviewed more than 50 individuals and worked one-on-one with some businesses to overcome specific hurdles around access to deliveries during the closure.
Freeport is known as a destination for fresh air shopping and dining, Kelly Edwards, executive director of Visit Freeport, said in the release.
Main Street stores, including Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store, Fjallraven, vineyard vines, Sperry, Loft Outlet and The Cosmetics Company Store, are working on plans to bring retail outside on the weekends.
The L.L.Bean Pop Up Shop will be set up within the closure on Main Street on select weekends. There will be shaded seating areas for those waiting for a table at nearby restaurants or to enter retail stores that are limiting shoppers according to their square footage.
Freeport businesses located outside of the closure may have a temporary presence on Main Street through an application process being managed by Visit Freeport, including temporary retail or dining as well as signage to help direct guests to their business.
All activities within the closure are required to adhere to the state’s COVID-19 prevention checklists for the related industry.
Educational signage about social distancing and mask-wearing will be installed throughout the downtown and complimentary disposable masks will be available at the new Visit Freeport Information Center at 115 Main St., next door to L.L.Bean.
Several retailers have opened new stores or expanded their footprint downtown this year. Toad & Co. just relocated its warehouse outlet from Portland to 9 Bow St., next door to its full retail store at 11 Bow St.. A Levi’s outlet is now open at 46 Main St.. Later this summer, Eastern Mountain Sports is expected to open a store at 4 Mill St.
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