Ottawa County

Hope for recovery stirs as visitors flock to reopened Lakeshore downtowns

Merchants in downtown Grand Haven and Holland are back in business and optimistically looking forward to recovery three months after shops and restaurants were ordered closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Their hopefulness was validated by the increasing number of visitors in those central business districts after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted the executive order affecting those merchants.

Even though safeguards are still in place to minimize spread of the virus, leaders for the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in each city reported brisk activity along sidewalks and sections of streets partially closed to accommodate outdoor dining.

Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks and his wife Elizabeth take a break from their streetside lunch to greet downtown visitors.Customer and employee safety remains a priority for businesses in downtown Holland and Grand Haven.
Downtown Grand Haven offers a variety of outdoor dining experiences.

“We are seeing life again in the Main Street district,” said Jeremy Swiftney, Executive Director of Grand Haven Main Street DDA.  “Our businesses are ecstatic to be opened again, but they wanted to do so in the safest manner possible for their employees and patrons. Most customers have been very understanding, and they are happy to be out and shopping, strolling our clean sidewalks, and basking in the sun at our expanded outdoor seating environments. With each passing day, we seem to be moving in the right direction.”

Downtown Holland merchants and visitors displayed the same upbeat mood upon reopening, according to Amy Sasamoto, Coordinator for Holland’s DDA.

“Our merchants were anxious to safely welcome customers back, and customers have been supportive. There is definitely an uptick in activity, because downtown continues to be a great destination for its shops and restaurants, as well as its beautiful landscaping and free parking.”

Safety precautions

With safety a priority, shop and restaurant employees are wearing masks while the same protective covering is required or recommended for patrons upon entering businesses. Patrons are still urged to practice social distancing and to take advantage of sanitizing stations. Plexiglass dividers have popped up in many businesses to provide a shield between employees and customers. 

Patrons occasionally have to wait their turn to go into a business because shops and restaurants are operating under pandemic occupancy restrictions as a way to minimize crowding.

Pandemic restrictions limit restaurant capacity and result in some wait times for customers in downtown Holland.Customers at JW's Food and Spirits in Grand Haven take advantage of expanded outdoor seating into former parking spaces.
Signs in downtown Grand Haven leave no doubt that the central business district is open for business again.

In addressing capacity limits for restaurants, outdoor spaces in both downtowns underwent reconfiguration. Patio seating has been extended mainly onto sidewalks and into some parking spaces that have been enclosed.

Neither downtown took the option of closing off their main streets to traffic.

But Grand Haven was able to expand outdoor dining beyond sidewalks and parking spaces. A portion of one traffic lane on Washington Avenue, which permitted two-way vehicle movement prior to the pandemic, was barricaded to accommodate shoppers and diners.

Downtown Holland did not have the choice of blocking off sections of its main thoroughfare because only one-way traffic was allowed on Eighth Street prior to the pandemic.

Dip in activity

Even with space modifications, Swiftney and Sasamoto expect tourist trade in the downtowns to take a dip this year because of a reluctance to travel during the pandemic. They are hoping local residents and those who take day trips around the state will make up for some of the slack in tourism visits.

Visitors flock to Grand Haven to celebrate the reopening of downtown.
Visitor activity in downtown Grand Haven spills into areas formerly reserved for vehicles.
Pandemic-related termination of crowd-pleasing events will also factor into slowing the pace in downtown activity. Downtown Holland took the first big economic hit with the cancellation of the annual Tulip Time Festival in May.

Looking ahead, the calendar of events that attract mass gatherings to the downtowns has been wiped clean for the remainder of the year — from the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven this summer to the Labor Day Truck Parade in Holland in September.

Resourceful measures

The event cancellations and expected tourism downturn only add to the economic pain felt by both downtowns during the three-month shutdown.

However, the economic impact from the lockdown could have been far worse had businesses not taken resourceful measures to cope.

Downtown Grand Haven extends outdoor dining onto a barricaded section of a traffic lane along Washington Avenue.

Restaurants in downtown Holland use more sidewalk space to expand outdoor dining

Restaurants, breweries, and some bars offered takeout service and local delivery. To boost sales, retail shops presented customers with more e-commerce options, tapped into social media platforms, and provided curbside pickup service.

“Our merchants were very resilient, and we couldn’t help but be impressed with how they took the challenge to conduct business in a new way,”
Sasamoto said.

Bouncing back

Despite the heavy losses from the closure and the continued slowdown in the economy, Swiftney and Sasamoto express confidence about the future of both downtowns.

“The bounce back will be difficult, absolutely,” said Swiftney. “While we have not had a business shutter its doors due to the pandemic, we remain cautiously hopeful that we are able to continue this trend as reopening continues, and see our businesses bounce back strongly and keep moving forward toward full economic recovery.”  

Sasamoto echoed his positive assessment.

“Recovery may take some time, but we remain optimistic about the future and are confident that downtown Holland will continue to be vibrant and successful.” 
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