Downtown businesses ask city to stop closing streets

The owners of 13 downtown Lexington restaurants and bars have asked the city to stop closing major streets on Friday and Saturday nights for events, saying that the crowds that visit don't eat and that it costs the establishments thousands of dollars in lost business.

"They used to tell us that people are downtown, and they'll trickle into your restaurant," said Gene Williams, one of the owners of Natasha's Bistro and Bar, on Esplanade. "They don't. They come and drink beer maybe and walk around, or they go to a run and then don't go to a restaurant afterward."

The street closings also gum up parking, he said, so frequent customers steer clear of the restaurants and go elsewhere.

Williams said the nights are crucial to many downtown restaurants that do just as much business on Fridays and Saturdays as they do in total Mondays through Thursdays. Some even do as much as 60 percent to 70 percent of weekly sales on Friday and Saturday, he said.

The restaurants and businesses represented in the letter are a la lucie, Alfalfa, Atomic Cafe, Bellini's, The Chase, Columbia Steakhouse, Dudley's, Jonathan at Gratz Park, The Penguin Piano Bar, Portofino, Rosebud and Sidebar Grill.

Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Newberry, confirmed that city officials received the letter and have referred it to the special-events commission, which meets in January.

"The commission is going to need time to consider and to gather feedback," she said. "This is a complicated issue with no easy answer."

Williams said the group's solution is to move events to other nights.

"We don't want any of them to go away," he said. "We just wish they were on a different night."

An example, he said, is the Midsummer Night's Run, held on a Saturday night in August.

"It's in a time when we should be seeing lots of business, but it really just closes us up," he said. "We do a fraction of what we would normally do.

"Streets are closed, so regular customers don't come, and the people coming are running and aren't going to a place to eat before or after the run."

Street closings for downtown events have been a new experience for Debbie Long, whose restaurant, Dudley's, moved last year from its former space on West Maxwell Street slightly outside of downtown to Short Street right in the thick of it.

She said it's been a learning experience to see how events have sometimes depressed crowds.

"I think we just need to be sensitive to how many times we close the streets," she said.

The group specifically asked the city to refrain from closing Main Street, Vine Street, Broadway, Short Street and Limestone.

Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp. and a member of the city's special-events commission, noted a change in a city parking ordinance should be helping the businesses.

Police are now able to bag parking meters as being off-limits for parking during an event within just four hours of the event, rather than 24 hours, which was the previously required notice. Officers also post the time that events will end, she said.

Williams said that's a step in the right direction, "but that's not going to help Friday or Saturday nights."

He said the business owners partly blame themselves for waiting so long to bring up their qualms.

"We would get together and talk about how disastrous it was for us; we would grumble, it would go away, and we would forget about it," he said. "We just looked at ourselves and said, 'We've never really told them to quit.' "