FREEPORT — A street closure meant to boost downtown Freeport businesses during the pandemic is being halted after some businesses reported decreased pedestrian traffic — the opposite of what officials intended. 

Starting July Fourth weekend, town officials closed a portion of Main Street to vehicles to create a vast pedestrian walkway and allow shoppers and diners more room to socially distance.

Main Street closed from Howard Place to Bow Street, from 8 a.m. Saturdays to 8 p.m. Sundays, and space was set aside for a handful of Freeport businesses and nonprofits ordinarily outside of the blocked-off area to set up tents and sell food or goods. This was scheduled to last until Labor Day.

Officials said the closure would be evaluated weekly and, if it were not helpful to visitors or businesses, it would be discontinued. 

A deserted Freeport Village Station in April after stores shuttered due to coronavirus. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Now, just after the two-week mark, organizers have found that though it has worked out from a public health standpoint — with the majority of people wearing masks and keeping an appropriate distance from one another — businesses found it less than helpful. 

“The majority of feedback the town has received has been neutral or negative,” Town Manager Peter Joseph said.

Observations show a decrease in shopping traffic, he said, and some retailers have provided traffic data “that shows a best-case scenario of a 50-60% decrease in shopper traffic into stores.” 

“Though it’s a nice gesture, taking advantage of space in the closed down area adds to our payroll expenses, equipment to process sales and additional inventory to allocate for additional space, which we do not have an abundance of at this time,” one retailer wrote in an anonymous evaluation of the closure. “Unfortunately, this has not gone well for us and I do not foresee us being able to sustain our Freeport location much longer.”

Another agreed that their store’s sales “suffered both weekends from the closure.”  

Others complained that there were too many out of state visitors, despite earlier claims that the intent was to draw locals during a tourist season stymied by the pandemic. Some business owners felt the detour was enough of a hindrance that people avoided town.

Not all businesses were unhappy with the street closure. 

“Several customers were actual visitors and were here because of the outside environment,” one person wrote, adding that it was the “first time this year that Freeport was active. We have to keep doing this.” 

Joseph also said that while the street was open to pedestrians, most foot traffic was still on the sidewalk.

While the plan allowed for people to spread out along Main Street in the closed-off area, it had the opposite effect in others. 

“We have had reports from Freeport PD that areas outside of the closure area (specifically the sidewalks at the intersection Bow and Main Streets) have seen pedestrian traffic packed in so closely that pedestrians are frequently walking on the shoulder of Main Street in order to pass people queued in front of stores,” Joseph said. 

Feedback from residents was more mixed and trended more positively. 

According to John Egan, council chair, town officials have taken a number of steps to help businesses manage during the pandemic, including relaxing several business use ordinances that allow for more flexibility with outdoor inventory and business promotion. 

Earlier this spring, the council also authorized a $100,000 loan program for local businesses struggling in the face of the pandemic. 

There may be other opportunities to support businesses, Egan said, and initiatives like the Main Street closure are worth trying, he said. If they don’t work, it’s a learning experience and they can move on to something else. 

“This is the way it’s supposed to happen,” he said. In this case, continuing “just didn’t make sense.” 

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