Dining in the streets? State grants help businesses find pandemic-era solutions

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE — After four months of selling only takeout meals from her Rouge Restaurant, Maggie Merelle was eager to resume serving meals to diners.

But, without the necessary outdoor space, her only option for alfresco dining was to set up tables on a quiet side street.

"We don't have enough sidewalk space to have outdoor dining with 6 feet apart to make it economically profitable for us and safe," Merelle said.

But, to shut down Center Street several evenings per week, she initially was told that she would have to foot the bill for expensive police overtime details.

Turns out, there is a better way.

Thanks to a state grant intended to solve such pandemic-related problems facing small businesses, Merelle was able to work out a deal with the town, which temporarily will absorb those costs until the relief money is in hand, said Select Board Chairman Roger Kavanagh. And, outdoor dining has been a hit.

The money comes from the Baker-Polito administration's fourth round of Shared Streets & Spaces program, launched June 10. The program, through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, gives towns funding from $5,000 to $300,000, as well as technical help to make changes to the outdoor infrastructure that will support outdoor activity and measures that allow for social distancing in the coronavirus era.

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It is a 100-day program for projects that can be done quickly this summer and fall.

In the latest round, a total of $3 million in "quick-build grants" will be provided for what the program calls "tactical urbanism," according to a statement from the DOT. West Stockbridge has applied to receive funding and has agreed to lay out money for the Rouge street closing, with the expectation that it will be reimbursed.

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Communities still can apply through Sept. 29 for the money, with the work required to be done by Oct. 9.

"Preference will be given to projects that can be operational within 15-30 days of award, projects in designated Environmental Justice areas, and projects that show potential to be made permanent," the DOT statement says.

Several Berkshires communities already have received some of the $1.3 million previously doled out by the state.

- Great Barrington received nearly $70,000 for the work involved in closing one lane on Railroad Street on weekends for outdoor dining. Most of the money will pay for the labor involved, town officials said.

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- Lenox received nearly $30,000, also to convert on-street and other parking areas for outdoor dining. It also will pay for speed humps and new signs.

- Dalton received about $70,400 for solar-powered flashing safety beacons and new crosswalk markings on Main, River and Depot streets.

- And Adams was granted $22,500 to create public outdoor seating areas and hand sanitizing stations at Armory Court and near the Adams Visitors Center, which is next to the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.

In Great Barrington, the outdoor dining has created a festivallike atmosphere that is helping the town in more ways than one. The grant also is helping the town offset the expected hits to local revenue.

"Spirits have been lifted," said Select Board member Leigh Davis."Businesses are supported. The energy is palpable. And with this grant it will only get better."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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