NOTL council held a special meeting last Friday to approve closing part of Queen Street on weekends and holidays from July to October.
Three days later, on Monday, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake's emergency control group, led by Lord Mayor Betty Disero and interim chief administrator Sheldon Randall, decided to override council's vote and limit the pilot program to a couple of weeks in July.
Under the town's state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergency control group has the power to make decisions without having to bring together council members for a vote. Most members of council appear not to object to the control group's move.
So, now on weekends until July 19, Queen Street from King to Victoria will be a pedestrian mall from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., as the town runs the pilot program.
The street will be closed east of the post office and Valu-mart grocery store, two essential operations in downtown.
The project began on Canada Day and will continue on weekends until July 19. Among its main goals are to see if the closure benefits downtown businesses and what effect it has on traffic.
There are mixed messages coming from councillors — some saying the closure is to encourage social distancing, while others are clear that it is meant to support downtown businesses.
The program was also pushed for by the NOTL Chamber of Commerce.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita said she’s happy with the town’s decision to close down the street for the shortened trial run.
“I’m actually thrilled that the emergency team worked with the chamber to quickly change the motion, and the outcome right now is perfect,” Cheropita said.
“And a lot of retailers are now very happy. And I think the public is also happy that this is not necessarily something that's going to go on for four months.”
Right now, the town, the business community and residents need to work together to see if the pilot is having a positive effect, she said.
“I think we need to work with the Chamber of Commerce and the merchants group. And part of the test should be, let's test the closure, and then let's evaluate — Did it work? Did it actually help the businesses? Is there something we could do differently?” Cheropita said.
“And we'll also look for residents to give their opinions and feedback. This is about helping to create a safe environment in the end, and it should benefit the business community and help them to survive as well. And to create a vibrant downtown area once again, so that our community can recover from the terrible effects of COVID.”
Coun. Gary Burroughs said he was not originally in favour of closing Queen Street.
“The decision was made, I was not in favour of some parts of it,” he said in an interview.
“I was not supportive of it going to Oct. 31. It was supposed to be a trial and we can do a trial in two to three weeks and see if it needs to be changed or adjusted or cancelled.”
With the changes made by the emergency control group, he is now more supportive of the shorter trial.
“I totally agree with the new timing. There was no reason to shut it to midnight, nobody's on the streets at midnight in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” he said.
Burroughs did note that the emergency group's decision is unusual.
“It's not a normal process, but I guess these aren't normal times.”
With the closure from King Street to just before the post office, the street will still be op
Coun. Clare Cameron, who put forward the original motion to close the street, said she’s happy to see a trial run in place.
“Overall, with the recent changes, the goal of having a test and a temporary closure is still moving forward. And I'm very pleased about that,” she said during a Tuesday interview.
She said she’s glad council had an opportunity to discuss the issue in a public setting of council.
“I received a very significant number of expressions of interest and desire to see a portion of Queen Street closed for weekends and holidays. And these expressions of desire came from people in the business community, came from residents. Some of them came from visitors, from people who have lived in town for a long time, some from people who are newer to town,” she said.
“I’m feeling really glad that I took the opportunity on that Friday special council meeting to make the motion that I did that helped, hopefully to secure the start of this pilot.”
She, too, said there was discussion about the need for “adequate space on the street to maintain safety, both for social distancing and for fire rescue operations if ever needed.”
Cameron said she’s looking forward to hearing from town staff as to how the test is going.
She encouraged residents and business owners to contact the town with feedback through the town’s Join the Conversation web page.
Disero said she was surprised by council’s decision to close the street, as town staff had recommended council approve workig with the chamber to find alternate solutions.
“Like somebody asks you, 'Hey, can we close out for a couple weeks to do a pilot?' And you think, 'OK, we're closing for four months? Like, what? I did ask Coun. Cameron three times. 'What is your vision for Queen Street? What do you have in mind? What are you trying to do here?' And she all she kept saying was, 'It's a street closure, I'm not changing anything. If somebody else wants to amend it, go ahead.' Nobody spoke up.”
Disero said she would have preferred to see parking spaces closed, but traffic still flowing.
Other ideas included closing a portion of some side streets off Queen.
“Or closing off some of the cans to make like little seating areas for people with a couple picnic tables that are distanced,” Disero said.
“And then the chamber came in and did a delegation saying they want Queen Street closed altogether for a test.”
“So I thought, 'OK, fine, that's not what we talked about, but alright,’ ” she said.
She said she was concerned because she’d gone down to Queen Street to talk to business operators and found that it was pretty evenly split as far as the desire to close the street.
“We only went to people that actually operated stores, not landowners. And it was not 95 per cent of the people on the Queen Street want it. I don't know how that came about that 95 per cent. But it was like, you know, 19 to 21 … it wasn't even that extreme that everybody wanted it. So I asked (Cameron), please be cautious, because there's not an overwhelming majority that want it.”
She said she’s received “lots of emails” from residents in the area, business owners and store employees asking “what are you doing?”
That’s when she made the decision to use her delegated authority to make some changes.
“I just thought, you know what, I am not going to go through another discussion of council, because I don't know what they will do. All I know is that we need to adjust this to make it workable for the community. And I have delegated authority, Sheldon has delegated authority, let's just fix this so that way the residents and the store owners don't have to suffer. So I went in on Monday morning and said … let's just do it now. Let's forget council for now. And let's just do it.”
She said the decision was made to keep people safe, plus to help businesses.
“The sole purpose and reason by the chamber and the Heritage District merchants was to make space for people to walk. What they want is for residents and tourists to feel safe. And they're thinking that might bring in a little bit more business. If people can feel safe to come here.”
Disero said what is most important right now is to “promote safe physical distancing and that we support our local business community.”
“Only time will tell if this solution helps us achieve both of those.”
The town said in a media release that the closure is not intended to allow businesses expand onto the street, but to “support physical distancing measures among those wishing to visit the Heritage District and to support local business during the busiest times of the season.”
To offset revenue loss, council also raised parking by $1.50 per hour for the duration of the closure.
The project is in partnership with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and the town’s tourism recovery team.
Chamber president Eduardo Lafforgue said in a news release that the chamber “would like to help facilitate a safe experience on Queen Street, helping at the same time downtown merchants and restaurants to provide additional physical distancing.”
“These measures are temporary, we need them now because safety and health are paramount for our residents and visitors,” he said.
The town said “a detailed operational plan” for the temporary closure is still to come.
The decision to close the street came just days after the town provided a list of reasons why closing the street isn’t so simple.