Downtown New Bern street closures approved for dining, drawing objections from some retailers

Middle Street closure in downtown New Bern, N.C. (Wendy Card)
Middle Street closure in downtown New Bern, N.C. (Wendy Card)

Outdoor street cafes will return to downtown New Bern beginning Friday and continuing until the end of June before picking back up throughout the month of September. 

During their May 23 meeting, the New Bern Board of Aldermen approved street closures to allow for the cafes every Friday between May 26 and June 30 as well as for each Friday in September. The motion passed on a 6-0 vote. 

The streets that will be closed are the 200 block and a portion of the 300 block of Middle Street and the 300 block of Pollock Street. The closures will take place from 6 p.m. until 10:45 p.m. on the following dates: May 26, June 2, June 9, June 16, June 23, June 30, Sept. 1, Sept. 8, Sept. 15, Sept. 22 and Sept. 29.

The request for the street closures was made by Lynne Harakal, executive director of Swiss Bear. New Bern Parks and Recreation Director Kari Warren recommended approval of the request.

The plan approved by the board of aldermen differs in several ways from past downtown New Bern street cafes. The time of the street closures has been moved ahead one hour from the previous time of 5 p.m. Additionally, under the current plan only half of the 300 block of Middle Street will be closed, allowing for extra parking along the street and in the First Citizens Bank lot. 

Harakal said Swiss Bear had sent out letters to business owners and residents in the affected areas that explained the plan for the street cafes and when it would be presented to the board of aldermen. 

Harakal said she received no comments from residents. She said the majority of the 26 businesses that responded were in favor of the closures, with four opposed.

“Not everybody responded,” she noted.

Reviewing the list of 26 businesses Harakal referenced, six are not located within the street closure area. Three businesses are owned/managed by the same entity, their vote counted three times. Five of the businesses are restaurants who will benefit from the closures. It’s unknown what businesses were asked but didn’t respond to the plan for street closures. New Bern Now contacted Harakal for clarification and will provide an update if we receive a response.

According to information Harakal provided the board, of the 18 retail and service businesses on the 200 block of Middle Street, 13 of them close at 6 p.m. or earlier. On Middle Street’s 300 block there are five similar businesses, with four closing at 6 p.m. or earlier. 

Harakal said the 300 block of Pollock Street has two retail and service businesses that both close at 6 p.m.

One of the businesses that objected to the street closings, Stanly Hall at 305 Pollock St., hosts Rivertowne Ballroom Dance Studio classes from 6-7:30 p.m. monthly on Friday nights, Harakal said.

Another business owner opposed to the street cafes plan, Heather Sinclair of the Snap Dragon store at 214 Middle St, said prior to COVID-19 she would keep her doors open until 7 or 8 p.m. on Friday nights. 

“Last year when the streets began closing at 5 p.m. we had to close. It stops our business,” Sinclair said. “So financially it does hurt us.”

Sinclair said she believes it is wrong for downtown streets to be closed for the benefit of a few restaurants while possibly hurting retail and service businesses. 

“I think it is a public street that we all pay the same taxes on and it should stay open for parking,” she commented. “It’s almost June and every Friday night the street is full of cars. We have a parking situation downtown and as much as some people enjoy it, other people stay away because of it.” 

Tom Faulkenberry, owner of Tom’s Coins and Antiques at 244 Middle St., said he was also opposed to the street cafe plan approved Tuesday night. 

“It’s already caused several businesses in downtown to move out. I think during COVID it was a necessary evil that we helped them (restaurants) but it cost us money when they closed the streets,” Faulkenberry said. “We’re a sensitive business because we deal in precious metals and people don’t want to walk four blocks carrying their precious metals.”

Faulkenberry said pushing the street closures back to 6 p.m. helps but “overall I just think it’s a bad idea. The restaurants and bars have had a tremendous advantage over the last couple of years and it’s just time to let the retail businesses enjoy a little bit of it.” 

New Bern Mayor Jeffrey Odham acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion among downtown business owners concerning the street cafes. 

“I’ve heard from some folks who feel like it’s unfair for the streets to be closed for restaurants to basically be able to expand their business and have more customers and increase their revenue,” Odham said. 

Odham suggested that the city reexamine its current policy that does not allow retail businesses to display their products outside.

“If I own a retail clothing store downtown and the street’s closed and I want to bring racks of clothes out to attract business in, legally they can’t do that, although I think it does happen,” he said. 

Odham also encouraged Swiss Bear to improve on the entertainment aspect of the street cafes, which currently includes cornhole boards and large chess games, and to invite food trucks to join in.

“I’ll be honest, the overwhelming majority of comments I hear from citizens is they enjoy the street cafes, they want to see those continue,” Odham said. 

By Todd Wetherington, co-editor. Send an email with questions or comments.