Changing Winter Attitudes

Changing Winter Attitudes
Submitted by 
Michigan Economic Development Corporation

With social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 mitigation measures still in effect going into the winter of 2021, the cold weather continues to bring challenges that our local businesses, commercial centers, restaurants and downtowns need to address. While the cold weather can limit enthusiasm for outdoor activities, it is important to be creative to support our businesses and engage our community. We should continue to challenge ourselves to embrace solutions that can be enacted to combat unpleasant conditions.

Winter IS a Special Event
The closure of streets, often only associated with festivals and special events, has become more commonplace since the pandemic. So why not think of winter as a special event? The demand for space to safely accommodate outdoor dining and shopping ‘forced’ many cities to reimagine the public space within their downtowns and how the right-of-way could be put to the highest and best use. In many cases, this meant closing a street or block to provide more space for pedestrians. As winter months have arrived and outdoor dining is less comfortable, we must challenge ourselves to embrace winter rather than hibernate and wait for spring.

Creating Space for Winter Gathering
In July 2021, the Michigan Liquor Control Code (MLCC) was amended to include provisions for “social districts,” that allow local governments to designate a commons area where adults 21 years and older may consume alcohol. The “commons area” is required to be shared by and contiguous to at least two qualified license holders, typically a bar or restaurant. The commons area must be defined and clearly marked with signs. The local municipality has to establish local management and maintenance plans, including, but not limited to, hours of operation, for a commons area and submit those plans to the commission. Over 70 communities in 38 counties across Michigan have created these social districts (as of October 15, 2021, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs). Many of these areas will be open year-round, with heaters and bonfire pits keeping visitors warm.

 There are also other ways to encourage outdoor activities downtown. During the pandemic, permitting processes were adapted to facilitate quick local responses; it became clear from those adaptations that there were challenges within these processes that could be resolved long-term. Now that communities are no longer in a “reactionary” mode, take time to review zoning and regulatory codes to ensure the standards for outdoor dining are consistent. Providing clear parking, capacity, spacing and sidewalk clearance standards can allow for many permits to be reviewed and issued administratively with little delay, which can shorten the process from weeks to days.

In addition to providing seating for outdoor dining or shopping on sidewalks, there are several often-overlooked areas in commercial districts and downtowns that can be activated to create a sense of place or provide shelter from the elements. Some municipalities have taken steps to identify and market empty storefronts, vacant lots, unused driveways, and wide sidewalks for land swaps that can accommodate pop- ups and other social infrastructure. This may include providing a clear set of design guidelines for winterized outdoor spaces that restaurants and other retailers could utilize, or even partnering with local business to provide materials or installation of temporary structures on public property that can be beneficial to surrounding businesses.

Embracing Community Partnerships

New partnerships can also bring new activities during winter. Downtown organizations and local recreation departments can work together and program parks as four- seasons playgrounds for all ages. While ice rinks and sledding hills are traditional winter activities that are still viable, those resources and infrastructure are not always readily available or affordable. Other low cost, short-term measures can be taken to provide opportunities. Activities such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing can be accommodated by designating trails and areas for these activities within local parks, trail systems and sidewalk networks that connect to downtown areas. Many
communities do not plow park trails in the winter, meaning utilization of an existing network is just a snowfall away.
Remember: ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothing!’