‘Prettier’ barriers among a few ‘tweaks’ eyed as Downtown Nashua prepares for 2021 outdoor dining season

NASHUA – While historically tied to the first day of baseball season, the phrase “Opening Day” has taken on a new, similarly exciting meaning for many Greater Nashuans, especiall?y those who ventured downtown last summer to take part in an experiment called Expanded Outdoor Dining.

Now, with the worst of the winter weather (hopefully) behind us – although March and early April are no slouches when it comes to putting on a wintry display – city officials and the host of restaurateurs and other retailers who populate Nashua’s ever-popular downtown area are busy putting the finishing touches on their plans for this year’s second Outdoor Dining season.

As of now, Opening Day is set for Monday, March 15, but as city director of economic development Tim Cummings reminded participants in a recent Zoom conference, “it’s the target date.”

Cummings also underscored the importance of St. Patrick’s Day to pretty much every restaurant, tavern or bar owner – regardless of whether they are Irish or the name of their establishment has something Irish in it.

The hope is, Cummings said, is to have at least most of the Outdoor Dining configuration in place by the Irish “holiday” despite the short window between scheduled Opening Day and St. Patrick’s Day.

Alderman at large Brandon Laws, one of a handful of aldermen who tuned in to the Zoom conference, said that “one of the concerns raised to me” by constituents is “snow removal needs.”

“What if we get a lot of snow in March?” Laws asked, to which Cummings replied that a plan is in place and he’s had discussions with Department of Public Works officials.

“The DPW (officials) have said that they are comfortable with the barriers going out” on or about March 15, and feel they could handle snow removal operations with the barriers in place.

“Of course, we hope weather isn’t a problem,” Cummings said, adding that “our main concern would be if we got two or three storms in a row.”

A couple of new initiatives are in the exploratory stages, Cummings said, one of which would involve so-called “pop-up spaces” where artists, crafters and similar small business people could set up on occasion in places like unoccupied storefronts or in shared space.

Such an initiative, Cummings said, would offer a new element “complementary to the restaurants and retailers in downtown.”

Great American Downtown executive director Paul Shea said he and his staff are planning to bring back the downtown farmers market this season, and are currently looking at setting it up aside City Hall.

“It’s still too early to determine the layout, but hopefully, come June, we’ll be able to operate with fewer restrictions,” Shea said, referring to regulations put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In showing the participants slides of a map depicting the barrier configurations and traffic patterns as currently planned, Cummings noted that the plans include instituting barriers for outdoor dining in the Railroad Square area, while the barriers in the section where Peddlers Daughter is located will be tweaked in anticipation of the opening of a new restaurant in the Riverside Building across Main Street from Peddlers Daughter.

Adjustments will also be necessary on West Pearl Street, once the construction of the Performing Arts Center gets underway in earnest come spring and summer, Cummings said.

Some participants wondered whether the barriers, the rather plain, modular concrete forms known as “Jersey barriers” for the state that first began using them in the 1950s, could somehow be more pleasing to the eye.

Cummings said that while most downtown merchants seemed OK with the barriers, “the consensus was ‘just make them prettier,'” he said.

To that end, officials are now accepting proposals from artists interested in plying their trade to make the barriers more attractive.

Michael Buckley, the owner of two downtown restaurants – M.T.’s Local and Surf, which are across Main Street from each other – said he is “very grateful … and very, very excited, that we’re doing it again this year,” referring to Outdoor Dining.

Buckley, and others including Cummings, noted that the Outdoor Dining program was created last spring as an emergency response to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, which by late March and April was threatening to shutter many businesses, especially restaurants and bars, and inflict at least temporary if not permanent economic ruin upon businessmen ?and women.

But almost as soon as Outdoor Dining became reality in mid-May, its popularity soared among diners and restaurant owners alike as spring became summer and, in turn, summer became fall.

By coming up with the Outdoor Dining plan, Buckley noted, “we achieved way more” than a temporary solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information on the program, including permits and similar procedures, go to www.nashuanh.gov/1389/Outdoor-Dining or email OutdoorDining@nashuanh.gov.

Dean Shalhoup may be reached at 594-1256 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.