Taking advantage of space that used to be for cars, downtown businesses work to weather pandemic

People eat outside on a blocked off section of G St. A white tent is set up in the middle of the street.
Outdoor diners sit outside Crush Wine Bistro & Cellar, Sevigny Studio, Renewable Energy Alaska Project and Urban Greens on G St. on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

Since the start of the pandemic, restaurants have gone through several phases of restrictions, and downtown Anchorage, which relies heavily on tourist traffic in the summer, has been hard-hit. 

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But, some restaurants and other businesses there have been taking advantage of a unique idea put forward by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership in cooperation with Easy Park and the city: Open Streets ANC. In sections of F, G, and most recently, E Streets, vehicle traffic has been blocked in favor of pedestrian traffic. The idea is to create a safe outdoor space that might draw locals downtown to eat and shop.

“I did see an uptick in local supporting,” said Daniel Buitrago, owner of Anchor Town Dogs hot dog stand on the corner of 4th Avenue and G Street. “They kind of let me stay floating around and able to stay open and at least pay a couple of my employees to make it through the season without a total loss.”

Since June, restaurants and shops have set up outdoor dining, shopping, games, and beer on tap. Other adjacent streets are taking advantage of a “parklet” program, overseen by Easy Park, that lets them turn adjacent parking spots into outdoor seating. 

“We’re strongly encouraging folks to support their local businesses, support their small businesses. Grab to go. Keep your money in our community,” said Amanda Moser, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.

The Downtown Partnership worked to make sure every business owner on each of the closed-off blocks supported the idea before they went to Public Works for the street closures. The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, supported by a city emergency order, is allowing liquor license holders across the city to apply to expand their business beyond their premises to support outdoor dining. 

The program has more than a dozen participating businesses, including Fat Ptarmigan, Flattop Pizza & Pool, Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, Sevigny Studio, SubZero, SteamDot Cafe, Urban Greens, Wild Scoops, Williwaw Social, and Wooly Mammoth.

Noam Schulgasser, owner of Urban Greens on G Street, said staying open has been a challenge the last few months, but he supports what the city is doing.

“I think that this is a really good opportunity for business leaders to show flexibility and adaptability and a little bit of creativity that will allow them to keep going through this thing,” he said.

A block south, George Gee, co-owner of Side Street Espresso, is hopeful their new outdoor parklet, a parking space that the Partnership and Parks and Recreation helped convert into outdoor dining space, will help with business as well. 

“We’re only a couple of days into this now. And so I can’t tell you how well that’s gonna work. But we’re hopeful,” he said. “[Downtown Partnership is] mainly trying to generate an interest in coming into the downtown by locals. And you know, hopefully that’ll happen.”

The restrictions have hit some downtown businesses harder than others. David McCarthy, co-owner of 49th State Brewing on 3rd Avenue and G Street, said they were forced to lay off 80% of their staff. They hired some employees back as business picked up in June and July, but the latest restrictions meant another wave of layoffs.

Having any kind of outdoor dining space is a huge advantage during this time. 

“Our guests that have been very loyal to us from the beginning have continued to come out here on our patio on our rooftop and have helped us stabilize over the last couple of mandate changes,” he said.

Hoping to capitalize on the roof deck and the last bits of summer weather, 49th State is putting on an Oktoberfest-type event this month called “Augtoberfest.” Heading into winter, McCarthy said they might bring back delivery service, insuring their own employees’ cars so staff can make food deliveries around town. But he said the outlook is still bleak. 

“I’m an eternal optimist, but the forecast in the industry is pretty dismal. And we are trying to think of creative ways moving forward.”

The downtown street closures are set to expire at the end of month. As of now, the latest emergency order, closing indoor dining, is expected to lift around the same time.

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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