Let’s face it: There wasn’t a lot of upside to the COVID-19 pandemic. But here in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, we can point to one lingering effect of the pandemic that has had a major positive impact on our community, and it’s all thanks to listening to our residents and taking community feedback seriously.
When COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, we still needed to support our local restaurants and businesses. Known for our small-town charm, we allowed our downtown restaurants and businesses to expand their outdoor seating with temporary sidewalk cafés. What we did not foresee was just how popular the temporarily expanded outdoor dining areas would become.
Once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the Town Commission received many positive comments about the expanded outdoor dining from our business community and residents. We knew we had to find a way to make these changes permanent.
We also knew community feedback was going to be essential to the future success of whatever permanent upgrades the Commission decided to implement. Over the course of a few months, we held several public outreach meetings so business owners and residents could share their thoughts on potential changes to our downtown. In addition to hosting public meetings, we launched an online survey to gather feedback on certain design elements, shared information during our Commission meetings and kept our community updated through the town’s social media channels and weekly emails. Over time, word spread, and we collected a healthy amount of feedback.
We learned that expanded outdoor seating, widened sidewalks for greater walkability, new landscaping and additional lighting were the most important elements to our stakeholders. While including these elements meant removing parking spaces, the Town Commission unanimously approved the plan because it fulfilled the needs of our community.
I’m blown away by the result. We added 5,400 additional square feet of sidewalk café area dining, new landscaping and new lighting elements that have truly enhanced our downtown area while maintaining our small-town feel. The project cost about $3.1 million, funded through an American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant.
Community feedback was essential to the success of this project. Beyond the design-planning phase, town staff also met with business owners before breaking ground to determine the best time of year to complete the work. Once work began, weekly meetings were held with the contracting firm, business owners and town staff to discuss questions or concerns that arose.
We also received positive responses on our social media pages and grew a community of informed advocates who personally shared updates with their friends and neighbors. Some of the posts shared by residents on the community pages received hundreds of positive comments, likes and shares.
My advice to other community leaders is, if temporary solutions are working in your city or town, explore them further. Listen to your residents and businesses and be open to implementing permanent changes that will benefit them long term. We expanded outdoor seating during the pandemic because we needed to support our local businesses, and it ended up being a change our community embraced and didn’t want to say goodbye to. Today, our residents, business owners and visitors are all enjoying a beautifully enhanced downtown that promotes greater walkability, connectivity and economic development for our businesses.
Chris Vincent is mayor of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.
Click here to read the full article on the Sun Sentinel’s website.