ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Communities large and small are coming up with ways to help businesses hard hit by the pandemic.
Social zones, which allow public sidewalks or city streets to be used to expand seating for bars and restaurants, have been tried in cities like Grand Rapids.
Now, the idea’s expanding to smaller communities.
“We’ve just been looking for creative ways to help us get through these times,” said Lisa Paavo, a server at Rockford Corner Bar.
Rockford’s Outdoor Refreshment Area is one example. The city started RORA back in December.
A one-block portion of Main Street in downtown Rockford is closed to traffic, and wood is piled up next fire pits in the street.
On a Wednesday afternoon with temperatures in the low 20s, there’s not a lot of action on Rockford’s version of a social zone. But kick up the temperature a few degrees on a Friday or Saturday, and Paavo says it’s like Daytona during Spring Break.
“I think they were ready to be out with their friends and socialize and not feel like they were trapped,” Paavo said of the crowds.
And it’s not just Rockford’s bars and restaurants that have benefited.
“It’s helped, not just the restaurants in this really one-block radius. It’s helped the stores with the foot traffic,” Paavo said.
Rockford’s struggles are not unique. In fact, there’s a tail of two Main Streets here.
Martha Davis owns Tap House Boutique in downtown Lowell. She’s also witnessed the struggles of nearby bars and restaurants.
“We had to do something else. We had heard about Rockford and what they were doing, and I just decided, make that phone call,” Davis said.
That call was to Lowell City Manager Michael Burns.
“Asked if there was something we could do. And I was like yeah, I think there is,” Burns said. “Went to the city council, explained it to them. They were on board unanimously.”
As a result of that call, Lowell will launch the Showboat City Social District Friday.
Monroe Street between Main Street and City Hall will be closed off to traffic.
Other sections of downtown, including the Riverwalk, will feature wood fire warming areas.
You’ll be able to walk around with a beer, glass of wine or other adult beverage from six restaurants in the zone.
Davis thinks the district will bring more much needed business to downtown Lowell.
“It makes people happy. It makes them get excited about something,” Davis said. “Feeling like there’s hope.”
The street closure both in Rockford and Lowell will likely end in the spring.
But this whole idea of social zones will likely remain well beyond that.