The boardwalk, which was met with some opposition when first proposed, seasonally will close 12 parking spaces along the west side of Benton Street to accommodate outdoor dining space at four establishments.
The city opened the smoke-free boardwalk July 17 and imposed 24-hour parking restrictions on the closed parking spaces through Sept. 30, according to city documents. Customers can use the area as late as 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The boardwalk was designed to be an aesthetic improvement to Benton Street that would appeal to residents and draw more people from outside of Woodstock to the downtown Square, City Manager Roscoe Stelford said.
City officials approved $50,000 in the 2017-18 budget to be spent on finding ways to make Benton Street more pedestrian-friendly.
Council member Dan Hart, who also owns D.C. Cobb’s bar and restaurant on Benton Street, said the surge in business has exceeded expectations and forced him to hire new staff members, including five new servers to handle the eight new outdoor patio tables.
Hart, who recused himself from all Benton Street discussion and votes, also said he has brought on additional kitchen staff and an extra busboy for the weekends.
“We didn’t know how busy it was going to be when it started, but now the outside seems to fill up before the inside does,” Hart said. “Our tables are pretty full when it’s nice out.”
Beyond his own restaurant, Hart said he has spotted familiar faces among the regular nighttime crowd in the downtown area at other establishments with outdoor dining space, including Main Street PourHouse, Mia Passione and Benton Street Tap.
“I think people really like that they can go down to Benton Street multiple nights a week at multiple different restaurants and still have the same atmosphere,” Hart said.
Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes bookstore on the Square, said she supported the project from the beginning, but even she was surprised to see how much nicer the Benton Street area looked after the boardwalk was built.
Lynes also recognized the effect the boardwalk has had on nonresidents. When her sister visited from Long Grove, Lynes said she talked about how nice the “area with the umbrellas” looked on Benton Street.
“I think it’s much nicer than a lot of people expected it to be, and people I’ve talked with are thrilled with what they’ve seen,” Lynes said. “For people who don’t live here, it’ll draw them in.”
When the project was considered in May, some expressed concerns about the city spending tax increment financing dollars on the boardwalk, and they labeled it a misuse of taxpayers’ money. Others argued the money should be spent on projects that improve decrepit roadways and sidewalks.
Residents also worried that with the boardwalk effectively closing 12 parking spaces, parking around the downtown area would become a larger problem.
“There is always a wide range of opinions on how the city spends money, and this was no exception,” council member Mike Turner said. “But the vast majority of comments I’ve received have been positive on the look of it, the outcome of it and if it was the right investment.”