Morgantown magazine’s publisher gives a behind-the-scenes update.
This is the second part of a multi-part series examining the need to increase outdoor space for businesses.
In May, as summer approached and the stranglehold COVID-19 had on our restaurants worsened, my husband, Michael Mills of Mills Group, and I spearheaded the effort that resulted in Morgantown’s first outdoor dining parklet. We are just two civic-minded people who work every day to make our town and our city a better place. It’s our personal and our professional mission. Other than that, we had no skin in the game. We don’t own any restaurants, and there was no monetary benefit for us. In fact, it cost us money. I donated the printing of 500 keepsake menus, and Michael bought the building supplies and personally built the structure.
I say that not for praise. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. What I was looking for was to ignite community change in a time when our community needed it most.
After meeting with city officials, the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH), the Morgantown Parking Authority, and area restaurants, Mills Group created a master plan pro bono for outside dining parklets that followed the state’s mandated restaurant seating guidelines. It isn’t as simple as one would think. Sidewalks must have a four-foot clearance for wheelchair accessibility, you have sloping roads to contend with, fire hydrants to avoid, etc.
Ideas were bounced around. Closing High Street altogether was a possibility, but rerouting traffic and the effect on retail establishments made it a cumbersome option. Going down to one lane was another, but then orange cones and signage would clutter the street. In the end, we opted for transforming two parking spaces in front of Tin 202 into an outdoor dining area. It seemed to be the least intrusive and most attractive solution. Everyone was on board.
Using our social media following, Morgantown magazine promoted the idea, generating and gauging interest. Community change happens when people come together to find a solution to a problem and then create an action plan to make it happen. The challenge is getting decision makers to work together towards YES instead of dwelling on the NOs or challenges. And that’s what we did.
DOH required that barrier walls be built to separate the parklet from High Street traffic. In my opinion, the bright orange plastic Jersey barriers that are filled with water are ugly and visually distract from an inviting streetscape. So Michael approached Central Supply Company, which agreed to donate attractive stone-like concrete walls to serve as a protective barrier for the pilot location on High Street.
We put a call out to the community to help erect it. Local contractor and Board of Education member Ron Lytle, Glenmark Chief Contracting Officer Mike Saab, attorney Bader Giggenbach, contractor Jeremy Carpenter, and my son, Ethan, showed up to help Michael, and within three hours the parklet was finished.
It only took two weeks from the day we started to get a parklet up and running.
We held a two-day fundraiser at Tin 202 to raise money for more locations. To enclose two parking spaces, the cost is about $10,000. The community showed its support and came out in droves, and we raised nearly $2,000. Chris Evans, one of the owners of Tin 202, said that the restaurant had its best June ever. “It was a game changer,” he said.
We immediately turned our attention to other locations. Mike Gainer of Gibbie’s Pub and Eatery was interested, as was Iron Horse. Main Street Morgantown stepped up and allocated funds to help cover the fabrication of two future parklets. The city agreed to shut down the alley beside Iron Horse for seating, making it a simpler, cheaper, and quicker option to expand its seating. Michael drew up a plan for that, and the city approved it. But instead, Iron Horse opted to only add two tables to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The plans for the alley parklet were never implemented. The focus then turned to Gibbie’s Pub and Eatery. That was June.
Last month, DOH made us remove the concrete end cap of the parklet enclosure at Tin 202 and replace it with a crash-rated barrier. The reason? They said it needed to have a forgiving corner so it didn’t damage a car or a driver if someone plowed into the parklet. The city defended the existing stone-like barriers, arguing that High Street is a low-speed street—that cars typically don’t go above the speed limit and, given the low speed, there would be little difference between a parked car and the wall. We were looking for a common sense approach. But DOH refused to allow the wall to stay as it was. When asked for their standards and suggestions to meet their criteria, they didn’t offer a plan. They still haven’t given us what the specific standards are, despite repeated requests.
It is now September—still no more parklets.
Last week the governor gave the city the option to shut High Street down to vehicular traffic. Just like that. Snap your fingers and shut it down. Without a solid plan and on such short notice, the city, respectfully and rightly, declined. But it does beg the question: Why has it been so hard to get parklets up and running?
To find out, I called the city and asked where we were in the process. I was told that the city presented DOH with a plan for Gibbie’s and Almost Heaven Bar & Grill, but it was pending approval from DOH. I called DOH and as of Thursday at 2 p.m. I’m waiting on confirmation.
Parklets are a way to prioritize people over cars. They are a great way to increase public green space in our urban environments. But a master plan needs to be created—from design to implementation to upkeep. Who pays for them? Who builds them? Who maintains them? Who is responsible for landscaping?
If you are a downtown restaurant, a person who likes to eat downtown, or if you just care about the soul of our community, your voice matters—but you have to speak up to be heard. You have to show up when asked. So we are asking you to help.
- Ask City Council to step up and quickly execute the plan for more parklets and to oversee the creation of a beautiful streetscape that is inviting to pedestrians. They need to allocate money to the building of these DOH-approved barriers and create a plan for construction, maintenance, and landscaping. With winter coming, we are losing our opportunity, and many businesses may not survive. Zack Cruze, Mayor Ron Dulaney, Rachel Fetty, Dave Harshbarger, Bill Kawecki, Jenny Selin, Barry Lee Wendell.
- Contact Governor Jim Justice’s office at 304.558.2000.
- Contact DOH and ask that they come up with clear, common sense guidelines that help make the creation of parklets feasible. E-mail DOT.Secretary@wv.gov.
- If you are a Morgantown Area Partnership member, tell the Chamber’s leadership that you want more parklets downtown and ask them to help make it happen. Contribute to the cause. Contact MAP President and CEO Russ Rogerson at 304.292.3311 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reach out to your Monongalia County Commissioners Tom Bloom, Ed Hawkins, and Sean Sikora at 304.291.7257.
- Then you have to go downtown and support our restaurants. Park in MPA-operated parking lots so they recoup their lost revenue. If you want to live in a vibrant community, you have to be vested in creating that—and that goes far beyond lip service.