Niles to close section of 2nd Street for outdoor hub

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, April 9, 2024

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NILES — Niles City Council members voted 5-2 Monday night to move forward with plans to close off a section of North Second Street to create an outdoor dining and event area. The council’s decision came after nearly a half hour of public comments on both sides of the issue.

Monday’s vote allows work to start on creating the outdoor dining event space on North Second Street from Main Street to the alley. Voting yes were Gretchen Bertschy, Amanda Dunnem, Charlie McAfee, Tim Rogers and William Weimer. Voting no were Georgia Boggs and Michael Thompson.

Thompson tried unsuccessfully at the start of the meeting to postpone a decision on the new outdoor dining project being called the FORGE until another meeting when both Council member John DiCostanzo and City Administrator Ric Huff could be present.

People in favor of the project included a number of Downtown Development Authority/Niles Main Street members.

They and city officials met two weeks ago to go over the options for the project after the original proposal came in over budget. The Second Street closure option had the lowest price tag of the three new options considered, with the other two keeping the street open. Funds for the project are coming from a RAP grant the city received in 2022.

DDA Chairman Justin Flagel said the street closure option most fulfilled the DDA’s goal for the project.

“It has the least cost of the three options, it gives us the most bang for the buck,” he said. “I’m also personally in support of the project. This is the sort of thing we want to have in Niles. Let’s keep Niles growing and cool.”

Downtown business owner Jim Morris said everybody will benefit from having the FORGE in the Second Street location and called it more central to the downtown district than the riverfront area. He said people from other communities were impressed when the Niles Outdoor Dining Experience was in that location a few years ago.

“People don’t go from the park to downtown,” he said. “We’re getting more traffic and an increase in foot traffic will help everyone downtown. I ask people to keep an open mind.”

DDA/Niles Main Street member Anne Born likened re-establishing the outdoor dining area to European cities that have central plaza. She said people enjoyed the NODE when it was there a few years ago and called it a “sign of life” for Niles.

Fellow DDA/Niles Main Street member Tracy Waggoner said Niles doesn’t do anything to attract people downtown.

“At Modineer, we have encouraged new employees to look at Niles as a place to live but none have,” he said. “We need something to draw people to Niles.”

DDA/Niles Main Street Manager Lisa Croteau tried to answer some of the questions she’s heard. She said that the DDA will maintain the area and tax dollars will not be used. She said activities at Riverfront Park don’t bring people downtown and that something is needed like the Hunter Ice Festival to bring people downtown on a regular basis.

Others took a different view. Nancy Hart lives in the section of North Second Street where the street will be closed and raised questions about safety and other issues.

“If I need an ambulance, who is going to move the blockade to rescue me?” she asked. “The last time they had this, the public was urinating outside our back door.”

Joel Rogers said he was concerned about public safety and traffic.

“It doesn’t make sense to block off a street that is used a lot,” he said. “When it was the NODE, my wife and I checked it out and saw it go down hill. I don’t think most people are in favor of it, there has to be a better spot.”

Madelyn Crocker said she had numerous people respond to the issue on her personal Facebook page, with two thirds of them against the Second Street closure option.

“People pointed out that we’ve already got a staging area in Riverfront Park and that it would be cheaper to build another bathroom there than block off Second Street,” she said.

“Another said that it was a terrible idea when you did it last time and asked why do it again,” she added. “A person said it’s an inconvenience to all businesses, you will lose business because of this stupid idea. People asked what the maintenance plan is for that area.”

Thompson was the main council member speaking out against the proposal. He said Niles has a shortage of housing stock and that should be the top priority.

“The DDA has been in existence since the 1970s and the population has dropped,” he said. “People would like to think things have gotten better but it hasn’t, it’s been an abject failure.”

He cited several reasons including safety and finances for his opposition and also noted that two-thirds of those who contacted him were opposed too.

“Under the best circumstances, only a small group of people will benefit,” he said.

Mayor Nick Shelton said this has been the most contentious topic during his tenure as mayor. He noted that the project was started to help business downtown and that even though it has been controversial, Niles has become a trailblazer in the county and the region for having an outdoor dining area downtown.

“The DDA has the goal of encouraging economic development and they’ve debated this issue and conducted surveys,” he said. “The DDA did all they could to develop a plan to make the community better and stronger and tried to accommodate everyone … They don’t take it lightly that this will inconvenience people. If it doesn’t work, it can be removed but I am confident it will work. Give it a shot.”

Boggs said after the vote that people should unite behind the plan even if they opposed it and work to make it a success. Bertschy noted that people opposed the relocation of the high school to its present home in the 1950s or the relocation of the YMCA to Front Street more recently and the closing of streets in both instances is not that big of a deal now.