Barriers that have been decorated with flowers block traffic from Exchange Street in downtown Portland. The street has been closed to traffic since the beginning of June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For 51 years, the Paper Patch has been selling greeting cards and stationery on lower Exchange Street in Portland.

“It’s the oldest retail store in the Old Port,” said Rob Sevigny, owner for the past two decades, after recounting location moves from 13 Exchange St., to No. 17, to its current address at No. 21.

Come Labor Day, that distinction will fall to Joseph’s, a men’s clothing store in its 47th year of operation. Sevigny decided to close the Paper Patch, in large part, he said, because business plummeted after the city banned cars and trucks from sections of several Old Port streets in order to create outdoor dining spaces so restaurants could operate more safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s no foot traffic,” he said. “People can’t get here. It’s a glorified dog park.”

Sal Scaglione, co-owner of the nearby Abacus Gallery gift store, said his initial understanding of the street closures was that removable barriers would be in place from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Instead, semi-permanent concrete structures prevent vehicular traffic at all hours.

Scaglione said elderly customers and those with disabilities are particularly affected by the street closures. Deliveries are problematic. The overall ambiance of the Old Port – its energy, its buzz – has changed and, in his view, not for the better.

“I’ve been on that street for over 36 years, so I think I have the lay of the land,” he said. “While they may have had good intentions – thinking about ‘What can we do? What can we do?’ – the verdict is in, as far as I’m concerned: It’s a failure.”

The other four Abacus locations (Boothbay Harbor, Freeport, Kennebunkport and Ogunquit) are not suffering the same downturn as in the Old Port, Scaglione said. A similar experiment in Freeport lasted three weekends, he said, “and it was a dismal failure. There was nobody on the sidewalk.”

The city of Portland has issued 133 temporary outdoor dining permits and another 16 retail permits that allow stores to set up displays on the sidewalk or street. Restaurants expanding onto a closed public street or sidewalk are charged $84. The retail street or sidewalk fee is $92 and requires a 4-foot clearance on the sidewalk for pedestrians.

Following a recent survey of Exchange Street business owners, City Manager Jon Jennings sent a letter dated Aug. 6 acknowledging a lack of consensus, but declaring an intention to maintain the street closure based on survey results, physical distancing protocols and guidance from the state.

Dean Cole of D. Cole Jewelers, behind the counter of his Exchange Street store on Thursday, said, “I hate the fact that we’ve lost all these parking spots.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It’s undeniable that this is not perfect for every business,” said City Councilor Justin Costa, chairman of the city’s Economic Development Committee. “But I would say the majority of the feedback continues to be positive.”

Costa said the biggest concerns he’s heard are a lack of parking and decreased pedestrian traffic. Many Old Port merchants, he said, raise legitimate complaints.

“We have to weigh that against the potential benefit for all of the other businesses,” Costa said. “On balance, we feel the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Not all Old Port shopkeepers are in despair, but some said they are less than thrilled with the current arrangement.

“I hate the fact that we’ve lost all these parking spots,” said Dean Cole, whose D. Cole Jewelers at 40 years in business is third on the Old Port longevity list. “That’s an issue. Of course, that’s not horrible this year because of the lack of tourists.”

People eat outside High Roller Lobster Co. on Exchange Street on Friday. The outdoor space was created by the closure of Exchange Street to cars and trucks. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pinned to the black apron Cole wears while at work is a well-worn button with a small American flag beneath the word Optimist. He started wearing it more than a decade ago, during the Great Recession, so he tends to view the street outside his shop window as half full, rather than half empty.

Cole invoked an analogy regarding the cruise ships that in recent years have made Portland a popular port of call. His jewelry store does no direct business with them, but perhaps the tugboat captain guiding the larger vessel into harbor will stop in and purchase of pair of earrings for his wife.

“I try to look at the big picture, the whole city, how’s everybody doing?” Cole said. “We all have to work together. If the restaurants are making money and they’re in business, that’s good for us. We’re good for them. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Around the corner from the Paper Patch on Milk Street, brightly colored textiles adorn the entrance to Waterlily, a shop selling handmade goods from artists both local and worldwide. Owner Reneé Garland is in her 12th year at that location and 15th in the Old Port after starting out on Wharf Street.

Garland appreciates the city’s efforts to help the local economy, but believes there could have been more input about street closures.

Reneé Garland, owner of Waterlily, poses in the doorway of her store on Milk Street. The large concrete barrier with signs that say ‘Do not enter’ is just a few yards from her store’s entrance. “When they first put it up,” Garland said, pedestrians “thought they couldn’t even come down this street.”  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Restaurants bring in a lot of revenue, but the retailers weren’t necessarily approached,” she said. “The general idea is that more people would walk down here and the restaurants and the retailers would all benefit, but I’ve noticed a crash in sales and also in (foot) traffic since the car traffic could not be here. The weekend before they put in the wall, we were quite busy. I had just reopened, and then once that happened, there was nothing.”

About that wall: Not far from the entrance to Waterlily, formidable concrete blocks are stacked chest-high across Milk Street and adorned with highway signs warning: “Do Not Enter” and “Road Closed.”

A visitor to Garland’s store described the wall as a “bomb-blast barrier” of the sort one might find in a war-torn city to deter suicide drivers.

“When they first put it up,” Garland said, “(pedestrians) thought they couldn’t even come down this street because it said, ‘Do Not Enter.'”

Two restaurants have tables set up on the closed-off portion of Milk Street outside Waterlily, but they generally begin serving at 6 p.m., which is the time Garland closes up shop. That leaves her and any browsers looking at empty tables much of the day.

“Maybe we could have done some sort of turnover where the street traffic is closed at 5 or something,” she wondered, “and then it’s turned over to the nightlife.”

Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local, said the pandemic forced the city to experiment with ways to help small businesses. She lives in Portland and thinks parking is easier this summer, despite all the lost spots, because the Old Port is not overrun with tourists.

Jennifer Hobbs of South Portland buys greeting cards at The Paper Patch on Exchange Street on Thursday. Owner Rob Sevigny is closing The Paper Patch after 51 years in business, largely, he says, because the temporary street closures have killed his foot traffic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Any tourist who’s in Portland is on these streets right now,” she said. “People really seem to be enjoying it. I heard from one business owner who said, ‘I’m really glad it’s closed off, because there’s no way you’d be able to maintain social distance with people.'”

Scaglione, the Abacus co-owner, remains a skeptic.

“No one at City Hall has explained to any of us who the people are who are benefiting or who like it,” he said. “They sent out a survey and said they didn’t have a clear consensus. My problem is that they didn’t have a clear consensus in the first place.

“My logical brain says open the damn street and put it back the way it was and let the natural flow of business take place.”

Gudrun Cobb, owner of Uncommon Paws on lower Exchange Street, said her business is down markedly from last year, but that July and early August have been fairly busy.

Gudrun Cobb poses in the doorway of her store, Uncommon Paws, on Exchange Street on Thursday. She said she would like to see the street reopened to traffic.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I know the street closure has affected other businesses on this street and in the Old Port in general more than mine,” she said. “I can only guess that I am a provider of stuff for their dog. People love their dogs. Everybody has adopted dogs during the pandemic. So that’s my only guess.”

She said her preference would be for the street to be reopened to vehicles.

“On the other hand, I fully support that restaurants are getting the bad end of the stick, due to the pandemic,” she said. “We fully support that they get as much business as they can.”

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