The city is ramping up its patio expansion program, moving quickly to help local restaurants slammed again with public health restrictions.
A rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in B.C., including more transmissible variants of concern, has led to an indoor dining ban until at least April 19.
Blair Harper purchased Caffé Motivo downtown a few months before the pandemic was declared.
He called the health orders a “roller coaster” and credited the city for a recent patio extension in front of his cafe in the 200-block of Victoria Street, around the same time the new restaurant restrictions came into effect.
The coffee shop is promoting outdoor bevies (the cafe serves alcoholic beverages in addition to caffeine fixes) in time for warmer weather, with about a dozen seats outside.
“The city was really quick and diligent,” Harper said. “We were one of the first businesses to receive the extended patio, so all positive things to say on that front.”
Kamloops Central Business Improvement Association executive director Carl DeSantis reached out to the city after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made the announcement and encouraged acceleration of a $200,000 patio expansion program to help local establishments, which is seeing significant interest from restaurant owners.
DeSantis said the city responded overnight at an “unprecedented rate,” opining that the patio extensions look “beautiful.”
Last year, when indoor dining capacity was limited, the city built temporary wooden structures. This year, the expansions are intended to be more permanent, built to higher quality out of pavers.
DeSantis said more interest is resulting from the quality. He said the city told him 20 businesses had applied for a patio expansion as of the end of last week.
Last year, 13 patio extensions were built at a cost of $66,000. This year, nearly the entire 300-block of Victoria Street is being extended.
“Short term, it is an immediate lifeline for the restaurants,” DeSantis said, noting it increases capacity and provides comfort to the public during the pandemic.
“Long term, this really enhances our downtown community as a whole, not just the restaurants, all businesses. It makes a really enjoyable, walkable downtown community.”
Lost from the expansion is parking, as the expansions occupy parking spaces in front of businesses. DeSantis said downtown parking is always part of the conversation, but noted the area is working toward a walkable business community, with projects in the area anticipated to bring more workers and residents within walking distance of destinations.
The city is in the midst of a parking solutions study.
Harper has his own concerns about giving up parking, but said: “The good outweighs the bad.”
Todd Mason, co-owner of The Vic downtown, called the latest public health orders a “kick in the stomach,” with last-minute restrictions leading to food wasted and given to staff. He said shifting to takeout and outdoor dining as quickly as possible is critical.
The city and KCBIA aren’t the only ones working to help businesses. Mason also gave kudos to neighbours Chris Monteleone and Dino Bernardo, who allowed temporary takeover of space in front of the Commodore Grand Cafe and Lounge, which has been closed during the pandemic. The Vic’s expanded patio at Victoria Street and Fourth Avenue was nearing completion as of Monday and will allow about 22 seats outside the downtown coffee shop.
Bright Eye Brewing co-owner Richard Marken said his Tranquille Road brewpub in North Kamloops continues to wait for the city to build its patio extension, despite correspondence dating back weeks.
He said takeout sales are strong. but added completion of that street-front patio area will allow the restaurant to serve at near-regular capacity, combined with outdoor space it already has off the side of the restaurant.
Marken said Bright Eye has cut back staff hours since the new health orders. He is grateful the city is picking up the bill to fund the patio extension as restaurants face more hurdles heading into summer, which is typically the busy season.
The estimated construction cost at the time council approved the program was between $7,500 and $25,000, depending on patio design complexity.
“It’s the time of the year we’re trying to be ramping up, not ramping down,” Marken said.
Kamloops Coun. Mike O’Reilly called the city’s patio expansion program “fantastic” for the business community.
He said businesses throughout the city, not only downtown and in North Kamloops, can take advantage of an extended patio, noting Amsterdam Pancakes in Valleyview has moved tables outside in its parking lot and Earls in Sahali has tables on the grass.
“This is about being creative,” O’Reilly said.
At this point, council has not yet received a report back on how much of the program has been subscribed.
Council capped the program at $200,000, with the option to add more funds. It’s not the only city initiative aimed at aiding businesses during the pandemic. Others include hiring security downtown and along the Tranquille Corridor, extending community service officer shifts around the clock beginning this fall and seeking out of grant dollars to aid businesses impacted by vandalism and graffiti.
O’Reilly said helping businesses keep the doors open in turn helps the city, with continued tax dollars flowing into city hall.
“Our flip side is, we don’t do this and the businesses shut down altogether,” O’Reilly said. “It will take a long time to try and build businesses back if those store fronts were to go vacant.”
DeSantis said as nicer weather approaches, the KCBIA will work with the city to intermittently close blocks along Victoria Street for short stints on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.