WESTBROOK – For the first time in Westbrook, an open-streets event will take over the downtown next Saturday, Sept. 6, as a way to raise awareness for downtowns as pedestrian friendly for biking and walking, and to promote exercise.
The event, organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, will lead up to the organization’s marquee event known as BikeMaine, which selected Westbrook as this year’s host city. A group of some 300 riders will camp in Riverbank Park Saturday night, and leave Sunday morning on a weeklong, 348-mile trek around the state. The ride will end in Westbrook on Saturday, Sept. 13.
Abby King, the advocacy coordinator for the coalition, who took the lead in organizing the open-streets event, said Wednesday that it is designed to create a “promenade” in downtown Westbrook to allow people freedom to do a range of activities in the street. She said people are encouraged to bring skates and skateboards, as well as bikes.
“Hopefully, what you’ll be seeing is people who are free to enjoy that space as a safe place to do those activities,” she said, adding that the event will also feature a number of scheduled programs, including Zumba, yoga, dance classes and bike safety courses.
King said that the activities lend to the celebratory feel of the event, and that “for this one day, it’s a street for the people of Westbrook, and not a place to either move cars are park cars.”
One such activity, a bicycle skills course for children, will create a course in street chalk, complete with stop signs.
“It will create a mock traffic course for kids to navigate,” King said, adding that the activity can help kids learn how to bike in a real setting.
The event will also feature a pedal-powered milk shake and smoothie machine.
Danielle Drouin, of Drouin Dance Center in Westbrook, will be leading four dance classes during the event.
Local businesses such as Ernie’s Cycle Shop will also be involved Saturday. Bruce Wallingford, the owner, said Wednesday that even if he wasn’t in the bicycle business, he sees the street closure as an opportunity to bring more people downtown.
Wallingford said the shop is providing tuneups and other “tech support” by cyclists during the event, as well as providing transport, on bikes, for the meal provided to BikeMaine participants Saturday night
Regional organizations, such as the Westbrook Recreation and Conservation Commission, will also set up tables, looking for feedback from residents on a range of topics, including what the public is looking for in terms of parks and recreation opportunities.
King said Wednesday that the Bicycle Coalition of Maine has also worked on the open-streets events in Portland since last year, where on each Sunday, the road surrounding Baxter Boulevard has been closed.
She said that during opening day this spring, the coalition hosted similar activities, and that the events have shown considerable results in boosting pedestrian numbers.
“They saw a jump, tenfold, of the number of people biking,” she said. “There’s definitely evidence that more people are getting active when they can do so along a street closure.”
King added that cities outside Portland are also great for open-streets events.
“The outlying Portland communities have the density and have these neighborhood centers that lend themselves to that same creative use of the space,” she said. “It’s been great to see the city so involved and encouraging of this as well.”
The Westbrook event, King said, provides a unique open-streets opportunity because it is taking place in tandem with BikeMaine 2014. Of the 300 riders, a number are from out of state, or other countries, including Australia and Japan.
“Many of them are going to be in Westbrook for the first time, and for them to be exposed to such a fun and lively community, will be great,” she said.
Last week, the Westbrook City Council voted unanimously to approve the noon-5 p.m. closure of Main Street between Bridge and Pleasant streets. The closing, not often popular with downtown merchants, is normally only seen during fall’s brief “Halloween on Main Street,” organized by the Westbrook/Gorham Community Chamber.
Bill Baker, the assistant city administrator for business and community relations, said the open-streets event is “well-intentioned” and that it’s “been properly vetted with the people most directly affected – downtown businesses. The measure of a good thing comes into focus after the event.”
For the street closure, city code enforcement is allowing downtown restaurants to provide outdoor seating, which could have a benefit to the businesses during the five hours.
King, who went door to door among downtown businesses, said part of the inspiration is to draw foot traffic to the downtown businesses in a creative way.
“It really is an economic development tool almost more than anything else,” she said.
Following Saturday’s street closure, a parade will take place from the corner of Bridge and Main streets to Riverbank Park. The parade will feature the L.L. Bean Bootmobile, as well as a marching band.
BikeMaine comes just two weeks after an outdoor obstacle course event known as Tough Mudder, which brought some 13,000 people into Westbrook.