The Elmira BIA will put more effort into a communal patio area on a stretch of Mill Street, Woolwich council having backed the request to repeat last summer’s closure.
A portion of the roadway east of Arthur Street was hastily converted last spring into a sitting area, half for the neighbouring Sip ‘N Bit restaurant and the other portion for public use. Jon Clay, who heads the Elmira Business Improvement Area (BIA), acknowledged that the area was not very attractive, vowing to do a better job this year if the closure was approved by council.
“It was the best we could do at the time,” he told councillors meeting via videoconference Tuesday night, noting that the project was rushed in the wake of the pandemic. With more time to plan, the area will be more inviting this time around.
The closure and fenced-off area did not meet with universal approval last year, with some of the adjacent businesses pointing to the inconvenience.
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Addressing councillors, Jason Devenny, manager of the TD Bank branch on the corner of Mill and Arthur streets, said many of his customers expressed frustration with the closure, which made parking more difficult.
Older customers and those who live in the rural areas tend to drive, and were not happy when they could not park nearby, do their banking and then carry on with their day.
“That’s the convenient, comfortable access they’ve enjoyed until now,” he said. “It’s not a small inconvenience.”
The frustration mounted over time as people could see that the patio area was lightly used, he added, noting it was often empty.
On top of everything, the area was ugly and not maintained, he said, pointing to the construction barrels, traffic cones and large signs. While the restaurant spruced up its side, the rest was not maintained.
“It needs to be a much better destination if people are going to use it.”
In that observation, he was backed by Coun. Murray Martin, who called the setup unsightly and took note that it was not well used.
“I never liked shutting the road down,” he said, asking if the BIA had looked at moving the patio to the parking lot behind the restaurant.
Jenna Morris, Woolwich’s economic development and tourism officer, said the group looked at a variety of options, deciding that closing up Mill Street was the best.
Nadie Schneider, owner of the Sip ‘N Bite, said there are a number of problems with moving the patio to the rear parking lot, including the logistics of wait staff having to travel from the front entrance to the rear of the site. A patio would also block deliveries to the back of the building, which is also home to garbage bins and the exhaust from fans and air conditioning units.
Taken altogether, it’s not a workable area for a patio, she said, stressing that the restaurant needs the patio to remain viable.
“Having outdoor dining on the patio last year made a huge difference – it saved our business,” she said. “If we don’t have it this season, we won’t survive.”
Schneider said the past year has been the most challenging ever. At times forced to close completely, at others allowed to offer only takeout service or only limited seating, the restaurant has not been able to operate at full capacity since before the pandemic.
“Outdoor dining has been encouraged more than indoor dining. From what I hear from my customers, people still have anxiety about eating indoors and prefer to eat outside during these uncertain times.”
Encouraged by the BIA promise to do a better job with the patio this year, councillors voted in favour of the closure. The timing is now dependent on pandemic restrictions. Under the current provincial stay-at-home order, for instance, restaurants are not allowed to serve customers in person, indoors or out.