Kelowna businesses reflect on the closure of Bernard Avenue

The plan was to help the downtown core fight COVID-19. Mostly, it seems to have worked

The vehicle free avenue on Bernard and the thriving patio scene in downtown Kelowna has been a qualified win for some businesses that line the main street of the city.

The City of Kelowna decided to close Bernard Avenue from the Sails sculpture to St. Paul Street starting June 29.

Following the Labour Day long weekend, the downtown strip will return to its former look; however, the new initiative has left some businesses wanting to see the pedestrian and patio friendly avenue return next summer.

Brightly coloured patio umbrellas light up the lunch scene on Bernard Ave at Pondosy St, Tuesday, Sept. 1. (Laurie Tritschler - Black Press Media)

Downtown Kelowna Association (DKA) director Mark Burley said the idea for redesigning Bernard was simple, attract locals to a tourist district reeling from the pandemic shutdown and encourage restaurants and bars to open walkable outdoor patios.

READ MORE: Kelowna closes Bernard Avenue to vehicles starting June 29

READ MORE: Bernard Avenue patio expansion ‘unrealistic’ for non-restaurant owners: retailer

According to a pedestrian counter at the intersection of Bernard Ave and Mill Street, the area saw a surge in foot traffic, registering an 80 per cent bump over last summer’s numbers as of Aug. 20 this year.

The result has been “a good uptick for the business community,” city property manager JoAnne Adamson told Capital News.

Restaurants thriving

“If anything, it put us more out there,” said Dev Strilchuk, a sever at Momo Sushi on Bernard. “People are more likely to eat outside.”

Head server at Bernard Ave’s Momo Sushi, Dev Strilchuk, said customers love eating on the restaurant’s outdoor patio. (Laurie Tritschler - Black Press Media)

None of the customers she’s served this summer complained about the street closure, except to point out the dearth of available parking spots off the avenue, she said.

“The closing of Bernard was the best thing the city could’ve done,” said Memphis Blues’ owner André Thomas. “2020 is the second-best summer we’ve had in 13 years.”

It might have been the rib joint’s number-one, he explained, had it not been for a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 following the Canada Day long weekend.

Memphis Blues’ owner, André Thomas, said closing Bernard Ave was “the best thing the city could’ve done” after the pandemic shutdown. (Laurie Tritschler - Black Press Media)

Adding patio space meant hiring more front of house staff, but Thomas said he’s been an enthusiastic supporter since he was assured by the Downtown Association that Bernard wouldn’t be lined with competing food trucks.

“There’s so much more that they could do,” he continued, suggesting that more live performers could entertain locals if the program was brought back in 2021.

However, Thomas contrasted the boom for restaurateurs on the avenue’s 200 and 300 blocks with the burden on retail shops up the road. “It’s hurting them really bad,” he said.

Retailers not as thrilled

Mosaic Books didn’t follow suit with an outdoor patio outside their storefront at 411 Bernard.

“It doesn’t make sense for us,” said store manager, Alicia Neill, who stressed she wants the project to come back online next summer “in some form.”

Mosaic Books manager, Alicia Neill, said the Bernard Ave closure “doesn’t make sense” for the bookstore, but she wants to see the program come back next summer, with some changes. (Laurie Tritschler - Black Press Media)

At times the closure bottle-necked crowds of people who tried to come into the store in large groups, she said. And, it was hard to hear her customers over last Saturday’s (Aug. 30) live music show outside the store, which she said lasted four hours.

Still, Neill said it wasn’t reasonable to judge the project’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in terms of black and white.

“I’m not going to be a curmudgeon about it,” she said. “My customers love it.”

Bernard was largely empty of foot traffic past the avenue’s 300 block on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 1 (Laurie Tritschler - Black Press Media)

Bernard closure 2021?

A July survey of all downtown businesses revealed roughly a 50/50 split between those for and against this year’s closure, said Mark Burley with the DKA.

He and the City of Kelowna’s JoAnne Adamson said their offices are working on a report to city council on the Bernard closure project for the fall.

Council will then decide whether or not to close Bernard Avenue to vehicle traffic again next summer.

Bernard Avenue will re-open to vehicle traffic Tuesday, Sept. 7, following the Labour Day weekend.


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