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Businesses eye alley as new downtown hangout

Courtesy photo An aerial view of downtown Alpena shows the area (in orange) that might be blocked to vehicle traffic this summer to create space for pedestrian use.

ALPENA — A downtown alley could become a pedestrian hangout after local businesses pitched an idea to the Alpena Downtown Development Authority on Tuesday.

Dustin Black, an Alpena resident speaking on behalf of multiple downtown business owners, painted a verbal picture of a foot traffic-friendly passageway, complete with outdoor seating, musicians, art, and white lights strung overhead.

Currently open to vehicle, pedestrian, and other traffic, the alley — from 2nd Avenue to 3rd Avenue between Chisholm Street and River Street in downtown Alpena — could be more appealing and profitable for downtown businesses if it were closed to vehicle traffic during the summer months, Black told the DDA board.

This summer would serve as an inexpensive trial of the idea, with more investment on the part of the DDA and business owners possible in the future if residents and visitors seem to appreciate the change, Black said.

The alley would revert to vehicle use after the summer months.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Downtown Alpena businessman Sam Rumbles explains how an alley through a downtown block could be used for outdoor dining and other pedestrian traffic this summer.

The board voted its support of closing the alley to traffic for the summer. The project proposal now goes to the Alpena City Council, which meets on Monday.

Downtown businessman Sam Rumbles said other business owners have been talking about finding a new way to use the alley for years.

“Downtown has become such a good place to hang out,” Rumbles said. “This is only going to make it better.”

According to the proposal, a vehicle-free zone would be designated by bike racks, movable concrete walls, or other barriers. Business owners would have access to the alley and could set up tables, hang lights, or otherwise make the space appealing to pedestrians.

“We’d just open up and let them do their thing,” Black said.

Musicians and other street performers, already part of the DDA’s plan for the summer, would also be invited to add to the alley’s ambiance.

A useful space for people hoping to eat outdoors — and a natural pairing with the downtown social district recently approved by the Alpena City Council, according to DDA Executive Director Anne Gentry — the alley could also be used for craft fairs, sidewalk sales, and the like, Black told the DDA board.

DDA money for 2021 has been tapped out, but the board might be willing to purchase outdoor furniture for the alley in the future, Gentry said.

Board members questioned who would decide which business was able to use the alley for seating and events, asked about lost parking spaces, and wondered how garbage would be removed.

No city parking would be lost because of the alley closure, Black said. Business owners would have to give up some parking spaces and would be expected to park farther from their businesses to keep from filling city lots with employee vehicles.

He shared suggestions for a more permanent plan for handling garbage and bathrooms, to be implemented later if this summer’s trial of the alley closure goes well. Business owners would work out amongst themselves how the alley would be used, said Black, who has helped develop similar projects in other cities.

With the DDA board’s nod, and pending council approval, the alley’s transformation to a people-friendly zone could happen before the Fourth of July, DDA Chairman Mike Mahler told Black.

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