This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 3, 2020.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Pandemic necessity has become the mother of re-invention of Alexandria’s public landscape.
Nobody expected the pandemic’s ripple effects to linger so long. COVID-19 is still easily transmissible and most analysts anticipate the public will continue to prefer forms of social distancing long after vaccines or treatments become available.
Outdoor options for dining, shopping or entertainment are healthier, and they’ve given a new look to our sidewalks and streetscapes. What’s remarkable is how quickly and seamlessly it all came together. City staff and elected officials took quick and decisive actions to bypass public right-of-way restrictions to enable outdoor choices. It’s enlivened our streets and helped businesses survive, and everyone loves the convenience, safety and aesthetics of alfresco activities.
With the help of lively outdoor spaces and loyal customers, restaurateurs have achieved sales much closer to prior year performance than they thought possible just months ago. At first, they thought these efforts were short term, but now their hope is to continue outdoor service indefinitely.
When phased reopening limited indoor capacity but offered outdoor options, innovative restaurateurs applied for spaces in front of their establishments. Some built decks and railing, added plants, canopies and even lighting powered by solar panels. Other variations include parking lots and alleys that have been converted for outdoor service with ambiance.
The loyal outdoor customer following over the spring and summer now has restaurateurs scrambling to find ways to keep it going as cooler weather approaches. They hope that designs and equipment might enable outdoor options throughout the winter.
The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and the Small Business Development Center are planning a virtual program to acquaint more business owners with options and strategies for their own outdoor possibilities. The hope is to inspire additional restaurateurs, retailers and even other venues. The intent is that well-planned and well-executed designs might spread this new and functional landscape to all sectors of Alexandria.
The information to be shared will include how to apply for the public right-of-way space, design and construction ideas, compliance with ADA requirements, sources of materials and equipment and lessons learned. With more businesses undertaking these setups, it’s possible they could achieve economies of scale from coordinated group efforts. Panelists will include business owners who have built outdoor facilities and are glad to share their experiences.
It’s incredible to look back over the past six or seven months at the dire circumstances that have caused so much grief and loss, and yet have not only inspired creative survival tactics, but also solutions that enliven our community. City officials and business leaders deserve kudos for their imaginative thinking and planning under pressure. The public also deserves praise for how readily they’ve adapted to new ways of thriving in the face of pandemic.
The city is special because we have talented and innovative citizenry, and we must continue working hard and adaptively to keep it that way. We are all in this together.