Newark celebrated the end of the Main Street construction project in grand fashion Thursday night, closing down the road and turning it into a pedestrian mall featuring more than a dozen restaurants offering al fresco dining.
Hundreds of people strolled Main Street, eating at tables that were set up in the street and listening to live music outside Caffé Gelato and Klondike Kate’s. Ten restaurants had signed up to participate, but several others saw the turnout and dragged tables outside during the event.
“It’s a great night,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said during a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I'm really proud of the work that was done and the exceptional way Newark’s Main Street looks tonight. I think that we can continue being the pride of Delaware when it comes to main streets.”
The night was a long time coming for downtown business owners, who suffered through nearly 15 months of construction.
“It’s a huge relief, one less thing we need to manage,” said Sasha Aber, owner of Home Grown Café, adding that she’s happy with how Main Street looks. “It’s not an eyesore. It’s a smooth ride.”
After years of planning, the project started April 1, 2019. The work went beyond a simple repaving and addressed structural problems in the concrete below the road surface. When joints in the decades-old concrete under the road failed, it damaged the asphalt above and caused potholes. Simply repaving the road would not have fixed the problem and would merely have been a stop-gap measure, according to state transportation officials.
Along with fixing the road, the Delaware Department of Transportation also installed two parklets as well as several new bump-outs to make pedestrians more visible while using crosswalks.
“It’s been a quite a process,” Clifton said. “But, I have to say that the business community responded well. They came through this maybe a little bit worse for wear, but nonetheless, I think that between the construction and now COVID, it really is a testament to just how strong our business community is. The real credit for Newark being the main street it is really rests upon the business community.”
In the lead-up to the construction, the project drew strong criticism from some business owners during a few heated public meetings, a fact DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan alluded to in her remarks Thursday.
“I'm really happy to be allowed back in Newark. My passport was rescinded last April by local businesses. Ryan, I don’t see you, but you know who I’m talking about,” Cohan quipped, referring to Caffé Gelato owner Ryan German. “Well, I'm glad that the mayor gave me a full pardon, so I could be here with you guys this evening.”
State Rep. Paul Baumbach praised DelDOT and business owners for working together to break the project into phases to lessen the impact on businesses.
“What a beautiful day and what a beautiful street. Anyone from Newark can remember two and three winters ago and the shocks and the tires that were dying, because there were potholes that were showing up every hour here. That's because the concrete was breaking down, concrete that was 50 years old. We knew that we had an extremely difficult job that had to happen and it was going to be awful for Main Street, but we knew we would get to this day.”
While the mood Thursday was certainly festive, it wasn’t the huge celebration city officials were hoping for before the pandemic hit. They had planned to bring back Newark Nite, the street festival that once brought upward of 30,000 people downtown, as a way to show that Main Street businesses were back operating on all cylinders.
Now, even with the construction over, businesses still have to contend with the effects of the pandemic and the economic downturn.
Polly Sierer, who was mayor when the construction began and now serves as chair of The Newark Partnership, thanked the businesses who participated Thursday night and said she hopes people continue to support them through the pandemic.
“It’s certainly important in towns like ours that we support the businesses in this crisis,” Sierer said. “The city of Newark and businesses are really practicing the guidelines. People will feel comfortable coming to Main Street.”
Clifton said he was thrilled with the turnout Thursday and said it appears the night was successful for the restaurants who participated. City officials plan to repeat the pedestrian mall event a few more times this summer, though the details haven’t been finalized. The original plan was to do it every weekend, but some businesses balked at that because it would interfere with the strong carryout business they see on weekends. It’s likely now that the events will continue to be on weeknights.
In addition, several restaurants throughout Newark have received permits to expand their everyday patio seating onto sidewalks, parking lots and Main Street bump-outs in order to provide more outdoor seating, which is generally considered safer that eating inside during the pandemic. Those restaurants include Deer Park Tavern, Duck Donuts, Caffé Gelato, Klondike Kate's, Mad Mac's, Skipjack Dining, Taverna and Timothy's.