Maria's Corner Cafe now has expanded outdoor seating Downtown Port Huron
Moe's Corner Deli with one of the picnic tables on loan from Parks & Rec Downtown Port Huron
A picnic table outside of Chef Shell's Restaurant & Catering Downtown Port Huron
As the director of Port Huron’s Downtown Development Authority, it’s Cynthia Cutright’s job to go to bat for downtown businesses.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cutright has been finding ways to make sure that people don’t forget about downtown businesses. Programs like the Downtown Word Hunt have worked to draw people to the city streets and sidewalks, peering into shop windows, even when they’re closed – anything to keep local businesses on the mind.
So when restaurants and retail were given the go-ahead to start letting customers inside, albeit in limited capacities, Cutright and City Manager James Freed began to come up with ways to help area businesses serve as many customers as possible.
Restaurants are especially challenged, with state restrictions only allowing for them to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Cutright and Freed’s solution was to shut down a stretch of Huron Avenue to traffic, allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating and provide a safer experience for downtown pedestrians. Other Michigan communities, like Traverse City, for example, have already enacted similar plans.
"We reached out to the business community and they thought it would actually impede people from coming downtown. They said, 'Honestly, a couple tables on the side streets would do'," Cutright says.
"We were ready to go up against MDOT, to put on our boxing gloves and fight for it. But it wasn’t a bridge we had to cross."
In response to the business community, Cutright and Freed changed course. Rather than shut down the whole street, they approached the Port Huron Parks & Recreation Department and asked them for any spare picnic tables. Hoping for 10, Cutright and Freed received 14.
Seven businesses received two tables each, instantly expanding their seating options out onto the city sidewalks, and at no cost to the restaurants. Those businesses include Bangkok Star, Casey’s, Cedar Sub & Salad, Chef Shell’s Restaurant & Catering, Maria’s Downtown Café, Moe’s Corner Deli, and Raven Café.
Expect the picnic tables to be out all summer. Cutright says that they could even return next year, whether social distancing rules are still in effect or not. Just don’t expect Huron Avenue to shut down any time soon.
"I was a little surprised. Maybe it’s an example of when the government thinks they know best," Cutright says.
"The businesses said, 'No, thank you,' and so we responded to their needs accordingly."