Small businesses take advantage of city's new policies for outdoor options in downtown Dearborn

It was earlier this summer when Carmen Bronson picked up the phone to answer a question that surely many of her regulars had also asked themselves: Why isn’t The Biergarten open yet?

Except it wasn’t a customer. Instead it was someone from the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority. It was an honest question from a DDA looking to find ways to support their small businesses challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Bronson had an honest answer, too.

"To be open at 50 percent capacity with 100 percent of our bills didn’t make much sense to me," Bronson says. She currently manages the bar her mom Carmen DeSanto has owned since 1972. Originally located on Ford Road in east Dearborn, The Biergarten has been downtown since relocating there in 1994.

The Biergarten has endured adversity before. It was nearly a decade ago when the business was forced to close for nearly an entire year while it fixed structural damage to its building. Bronson says the damage was caused by the demolition of the building next door.

It’s a twist of irony that the now-empty lot next door, that which caused their closure nearly ten years previous, proved to be the key that allowed The Biergarten to re-open.

The reason that the DDA called, Bronson says, was to see if the bar was interested in opening an outdoor seating area on the vacant lot next door. The lot is city-owned, but Dearborn has relaxed its outdoor seating rules and eased the permit process to allow businesses to expand outdoors. The changes apply to both private and city-owned property.

Seven picnic tables and two sets of cornhole boxes later – built and donated by friends and family of the bar – and The Biergarten was able to re-open by mid-July, the outdoor seating area allowing the bar to nearly match their regular indoor capacity of right around 60 patrons.

"We’re really happy that we could do that there," says Jeffrey Watson, director of Economic and Community Development for the City of Dearborn.

"Of course the city is very interested in redeveloping that lot – in fact, we have received multiple calls about it recently – but in the meantime, we’re happy to have the Biergarten be able to move outdoors.

"This is a difficult time but we’re really looking for positives and what opportunities are there to take advantage of to help out our restaurants and small businesses."

The new outdoor area at The Biergarten
In a normal year, it’s a little bit of a process for a bar or restaurant to get a permit for outdoor seating. Now it’s a one-page form and Watson says that they try to issue approvals in the span of 24 hours. Seating can extend to city-owned property like parking lots and undeveloped lots. There’s also the option for platform dining, an 8-foot-by-20-foot modular platform that can be placed curbside on top of on-street parking spaces.

The restaurant M Cantina was recently approved for outdoor dining on top a parking lot at Michigan Avenue and Jonathon Street.

"We hadn’t been interested in that spot for seating before but with COVID we had to take advantage of it," says Junior Merino, owner of M Cantina.

"Usually fees are attached to the permit process but the fees were waived. It’s great because they’re helping small businesses. And not only monetarily but they’re making things more accessible."

Additional options for boosting downtown businesses remain on the table. While there are no plans yet, the city could close down a street to traffic, allowing for pedestrians and more outdoor seating on the streets themselves. The state of Michigan also made available the option for cities to establish "social districts," where communities can allow bars to sell alcohol to-go and for it to be consumed on city streets in designated zones.

Whether it’s streamlining the permit process or instituting social districts, cities like Dearborn aren’t only thinking about using these tools to boost business during the COVID-19 pandemic, but after it, too.

As is often the case, through adversity comes innovation.

"We want to support businesses because of COVID,” Watson says. “But it’s also: What can we do moving forward and coming out of it?"

While The Biergarten and M Cantina have taken advantage of the option for expanding onto city-owned property, other businesses have opened onto their own private property. It’s a list that includes Byblos Banquet Center, Downey Brewing Company, the restaurants between O’Sushi and Biggby Coffee, and Sattva Yoga.

Another yoga studio, Yoga Shala, has been holding classes outdoors at Ford Field. They’ve also been working with Ford Land to hold outdoor yoga sessions at the Wagner Place development.

Even if she can’t hold classes inside her studio, Yoga Shala owner Jamie Garrison has experienced a surge in new customers, something she attributes to the uncertainty of a world in the midst of a pandemic.

"There are challenges and distractions being outside. You can control the studio with lighting, sound, aromatherapy," Garrison says.

"You can’t control outside distractions but with the beauty of being outside, it enhances the practice in many ways."

Cristina Sheppard-Decius is executive director of the East and West Dearborn DDAs. She’s been working with downtown businesses, helping them navigate their options for staying open throughout the pandemic.

She credits small business owners and city officials alike for coming up with new ways to stay open in the face of COVID-19.

"It’s been important to the sustainability of the downtown districts, to help our businesses not only survive the pandemic and crisis but to come out of it stronger and to grow from it. These measures are things we’re doing to help businesses do just that," Sheppard-Decius says.

"For the city and the DDAs to help, it’s a job that we need to do."

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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.