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Jim Kenyon: Talking about walking on Hanover’s South Main Street

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/30/2020 8:47:03 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 8:47:39 PM

Can you imagine a downtown Hanover without cars and trucks clogging South Main Street?

Some business owners can.

They envision several blocks as an outdoor pedestrian mall, a la Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, where people dine and shop while enjoying live music and other entertainment.

“It would be awesome,” said Jarett Berke, owner of Lou’s, the downtown restaurant and bakery that’s been around since 1947. “It could reinvigorate Hanover.”

Closing off Hanover’s primo street to traffic has been bandied about from time to time for the last 30 years, but it’s never gained much traction. Naysayers argue that removing 50 or so parking spaces would only worsen the shortage downtown, and that diverted traffic would burden nearby neighborhoods.

So why bring up the idea again?

The novel coronavirus is a game changer. No one knows what’s in store for downtown Hanover — and many other downtowns across the country — at the other end of pandemic (whenever that might be).

But it won’t be business as usual.

Shop owners, restaurateurs, landlords and town officials in Hanover must be open to new ways of attracting people to the downtown, including a pedestrian mall, said Nigel Leeming, owner of Murphy’s on the Green tavern.

“Being vibrant means you have to be willing to take risks,” said Leeming, who has been in the restaurant business for nearly 30 years. “It can’t be the same old thing. If you don’t innovate, you get run over.”

Leeming points out that downtown Hanover was “already down” before the coronavirus hit. High rents and online shopping have taken a toll for a while.

Valley News business writer John Lippman counted more than 20 stores, restaurants and businesses on or adjacent to South Main Street that closed their doors between 2012 and 2018. Some spaces have been filled, but a number of “for lease” signs remain in storefront windows.

New Hampshire recently allowed restaurants to begin seating customers outdoors. It’s still too early to tell, however, how many restaurants in downtown Hanover will survive the pandemic.

Morano Gelato has already announced it won’t be back. On the retail side, the future of J.Crew is iffy. (The U.S. clothing chain filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month.)

Parking issues aside, John Pepper, co-founder of Boloco, a burrito shop that opened on South Main in 2004, told me that having people strolling a vehicle-free street could provide a huge boost. “Creating a more memorable, community-orientated experience is an especially good idea right now,” he said.

Marc Milowsky, who served on the executive committee of the then-Hanover Chamber of Commerce, was an early proponent of transforming South Main into a pedestrian mall. He urged Hanover business leaders to “look at Burlington. It can work.”

Hanover businesspeople and town leaders countered with “look at what happened to downtown Lebanon,” said Milowsky, who, with his wife, Patty, opened Molly’s, a restaurant and bar on South Main, in 1983. (The couple sold the popular restaurant in 2018, but still own the building.)

For years, the Lebanon Mall, built after a fire ripped through downtown in 1964, was a white elephant. But now it’s “coming back,” Milowsky said, noting the Three Tomatoes and Salt hill restaurants that anchor one end of the mall. Omer and Bob’s, the outdoor gear shop that moved from downtown Hanover in 2008, is another drawing card.

“Hanover always thought it was isolated from any downturns in the economy because it had Dartmouth,” Milowsky said, but the coronavirus has “exposed the vulnerability” of the town’s business district. “At some point, people have to start thinking a little more progressively,” he added.

Not everyone with a vested interest, however, is convinced that closing off South Main — starting at the Hanover Inn and going as far as South Street — would be an improvement.

Jill Butler, who moved J List, a clothing and gift store, from Norwich five years ago, told me that customers like parking in front of a favorite store to “pop in and out.” Most people visit downtown with a specific purpose in mind — getting a bite to eat, catching a movie or shopping at a particular store. “People don’t mill around,” she said.

“I don’t know what would be gained (by closing off South Main), but I’m open to anything to make downtown more fun and dynamic,” Butler said.

The loss of parking spaces (along with an Advance Transit bus stop) probably isn’t the biggest roadblock.

South Main Street is part of Route 10, a state highway, which means a “significant amount of heavy regional traffic” passes through the downtown, Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin wrote me in an email.

Re-routing vehicles could “pitch heavy traffic into two densely settled neighborhoods with lots of pedestrians, kids and critters,” she said.

A compromise?

Berke, who took over Lou’s in 2018, suggested making South Main into a one-way street. North Main Street, which runs along the Dartmouth Green and flows into South Main, already is.

Still, it might be asking too much. Detractors will question if it’s worth going to the trouble when the Upper Valley’s outdoor dining season lasts only about five months.

As strange as it sounds, the pandemic may have already led to a palatable alternative. Last week, Hanover officials blocked off parking spaces in front of downtown restaurants to make room for outdoor seating while following social distancing guidelines. The outdoor seating is expected to remain through Labor Day.

It’s not Church Street in Burlington. But if the change became permanent?

In these unsettled times, it would signal progress.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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