Two women take a walk through a quiet downtown Freeport in April, shortly after most businesses closed due to coronavirus. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

FREEPORT — A two-block section of Freeport’s downtown will close to vehicles on weekends in an attempt to attract more pedestrian traffic to downtown businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Main Street will close to vehicles from Howard Place by The Lobster Cooker and Pub, to Bow Street, or by Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen and Topside Tavern, from 8 a.m. on Saturdays to 8 p.m. on Sundays. A detour will be set up from West Street to Depot Street and then to Bow Street. One side of Main Street will be open for emergency vehicles and foot traffic. 

The closure will be evaluated weekly and if it is not helpful to visitors or businesses, or if there are health concerns, it will be discontinued after two weekends, according to marketing group Visit Freeport. If it is successful, it could be in place until Labor Day. 

“Downtown Freeport is an attractive place to walk around town, and we’re trying to highlight that,” Town Council Chair John Egan said. “We hope this will remind locals and visitors about our accessible downtown and return some energy to our community. Moving some downtown activity outdoors will also help accommodate those who would prefer to spend less time indoors for health and safety reasons during this unprecedented time.”

According to the town’s application to the department of transportation, the downtown has been the focus of local economic development for years. 

“Preserving and building our commercial partners in the downtown is important not only to the businesses themselves, but also to the vibrancy of Freeport and its residents,” officials wrote. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, so bringing shoppers and visitors to Freeport while maintaining safety is a priority. 

This planned closure of Main Street will serve to provide a safe, outdoor space for shopping and dining, allowing visitors to spread out while eating or waiting in line. The closure is not intended to be an event or any form of festival, said Kelly Edwards, director of Visit Freeport. 

L.L.Bean Bootmobiles will serve as a “festive gateway” to the closed-off area, and Jersey barriers will help block traffic. The outdoor retailer re-opened its flagship store June 1, after the company closed all its stores March 16, due to the outbreak. It was the first time in L.L.Bean’s history that its flagship, normally open 24 hours, closed for more than a day.

Within the area closed to traffic, there will be covered seating areas with sanitization stations for people waiting for a table or needing to get out of the sun, and an L.L.Bean pop up shop selling summer items and gifts. There will be enough space for a handful of Freeport businesses or nonprofits to safely set up a pop-up tent in the area to sell food or goods and several of the businesses along the stretch have plans to bring some of their wares out onto the sidewalks during the closure.

Main Street, or Route 1, is a state road, requiring the Maine Department of Transportation approve the project, which Town Manager Peter Joseph said happened within hours of submission, several days before town officials expected to hear back. 

According to Paul Merrill, spokesperson for the MDOT, that stretch of Main Street sees anywhere from 8,500 to 13,800 vehicles per day during normal traffic volumes. In the last several months though, traffic statewide has dipped nearly 25%, he said, and Freeport is one of several communities they have worked with to try to find an alternative for downtown areas. 

Traffic in the area is “significant,” he said, but not so high that a closure would negatively impact vehicle or pedestrian traffic. 

Leslie Garey, owner of the Lobster Cooker and Pub, is a big supporter of the plan — her business is on the corner of Main Street and Howard Place, so people will have to pass right by the restaurant.  

The business closed for its annual winter break in early January, and despite an initial reopening date penciled in for May, has remained closed. The Lobster Cooker is scheduled to reopen on Thursday, and if everything goes according to plan, the Freeport Cafe, which Garey also owns, will follow suit sometime next week. 

“It’s scary and exciting, and we want to get it right,” she said, adding that The Lobster Cooker has a large outdoor patio for people to enjoy their food outside and stay safe. 

“I think it’s great that (Freeport) is working to bring people into town, because that’s our concern. We need tourists. They’re doing everything they can to make it easy for people to come and not be afraid of a crowded town,” she said. “It makes Freeport more welcoming, and that’s what we need.”

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