Wilmot township serves up patio-style dining plan for downtown New Hamburg

A Wilmot streetscape plan is being discussed by Coun. Jennifer Pfenning, New Hamburg Board of Trade President Lyle Cressman, and township Director of Development Services Harold O'Krafka. - Photo: Nigel Gordijk

Dramatic changes could be coming to New Hamburg’s downtown core once the province allows restaurants to reopen, if a proposal to allow al fresco dining goes ahead. Many restaurants have only been offering curbside pickup and delivery since Ontario closed non-essential businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The plan would mean temporarily repurposing a small number of parking spaces on Peel and Huron Streets.

Wilmot’s Director of Development Services Harold O’Krafka is part of the Business and Economic Support Team of Waterloo Region (BESTWR), which focusses on helping businesses deal with COVID-19-related challenges. He’s in favour of the idea.

“The expectation is that restaurants could have 50% occupancy if they’re having to adhere to physical distancing. That’s a huge hit. Patios are seasonal, and this may not be the perfect solution, but it’s at least trying.”

Ward 4 councillor Jenn Pfenning unveiled the plan on Facebook on Victoria Day, and she said it was well received. “The feedback has been 100% positive. There hasn’t been anyone who’s said it’s a bad idea.”

At her town hall event last year, “people expressed a desire for more vibrant landscaping in our downtowns, and more pedestrian-friendly aspects to the core,” she recalled.

Taking away some parking spots on Huron Street last Fall for a crosswalk meant the area that’s left is “essentially dead space, but it’s off the curb, so it’s really a pedestrian area. I was thinking about how we can use that by making it part of the sidewalk to be a patio-type area.”

O’Krafka said that there will actually be additional spaces for cars downtown, due to a couple of Township developments. “With the Kirkpatrick Park project last year, and this year’s project on Wilmot Street, it’s going to increase parking.”

New Hamburg Board of Trade president Lyle Cressman is generally supportive of the proposal, but believes it needs careful consideration.

“There are 12 food establishments on Huron and Peel Street, so if everyone would decide to open onto the street, that’s a significant change in the atmosphere of the downtown. I’m not saying it’s a bad change, but it would be significant,” he said.

“We need to gather more information from all of our members, not just the restaurant members, to see how it would impact their business.”

Cressman owns Puddicombe House on Peel, and he’s already explored some options.

“The application fee for an expanded patio from AGCO (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario) is $850, and the proposal needs to be posted for 30 days for people to offer feedback. It’s not as simple as deciding today we’re going to put tables on the street.”

“If tables need to be six feet apart, how does that look on a sidewalk or parking spot? They also need to be six feet from any passing walker. The other thing is, when patios are set up, you have to lease the space from the municipality, so there’s that liability.”

Even though this is intended as a temporary measure to help restaurants recover, Pfenning said there’s the option to make the move permanent.

“We can decide if we want to keep it or not. If it fits our community, we’re getting a lot of use out of it, and it’s helping businesses, why wouldn’t we make it permanent?”

“There are a variety of ways this has been done around the world, and it’s very successful. It makes it a very enjoyable place to be.”

She invited people to share their thoughts with her via email, or by messaging her on Facebook.

“When the process moves forward and comes to council for approval, they can delegate to council and have their say publicly,” she added.