GR announces plan to open public space to help economy recover

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — To say it’s been a difficult year for restaurants like Sparks BBQ would be an understatement.

They opened up on Ionia Avenue in the Arena District in January. In early March, COVID-19 restrictions shut them down and 20 employees were laid off. The restaurant reopened for takeout last Monday.

“The biggest thing is just letting people know that we’re back, letting them know that we’re here again,” general manager Brandon Nequist said.

The decision to allow places to the north, like Traverse City where the original Sparks is located, to reopen has provided a light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of businesses. And those businesses will look a lot different when they do reopen.

“It’s going to look ghostly. I’ve heard some restaurants say they might even put mannequins in some seats to kind of fill things up. We’re not going to go that far,” Nequist said. “Getting people in here, every other table. Obviously, the table layout and everything is going to be completely different, keeping those distances.”

But with restaurant capacity expected to be limited to 50%, smaller restaurants may not have the room to satisfy capacity limitations and still make enough money to make it worth reopening.

With that in mind, the Grand Rapids Outdoor Space Activation Working Group, part of a city hall task force looking at ways the city can give businesses and the rest of the community a jump start, has proposed giving more access to public space like sidewalks, curbside parking spots and in some cases, portions of the street, to give restaurants more table space.

The city would establish 22 social zones in areas with at least four restaurants within 100 feet of each other.

Business and neighborhood associations would be involved in the decision process.

The plan would launch in early June and end sometime after ArtPrize.

The city is looking at reducing or waiving permit fees for outdoor expansion as well.

When the governor will lift the limits in West Michigan is still the big unknown.

And the wheels of government, including City Hall, can move pretty slow.

Grand Rapids leaders are treating this as an emergency.

“We want to make sure that as soon as we hear the governor’s decision on when our region can open back up, that we are able to do everything we can to support our businesses to do that.” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said.

Nequist said the plan could be a big help.

“If we can’t do 100% occupancy, but we can spread people out and the city is willing to work with us to get some people outside, I know in the summer time, people love sitting out there.”

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