DECATUR — Outdoor dining is on its way to becoming a permanent feature at the Gin Mill in downtown Decatur.
The restaurant at 124 E. Prairie Ave. is moving forward with turning the sidewalk in front the business into a space for outdoor dining after Decatur City Council members on Monday approved funding a portion of the project.
The owners of the Gin Mill were not immediately available for comment but City Manager Scot Wrighton said the proposed improvement project would involve adding a decorative sidewalk "bump-out" similar to the area in front of Coney McKanes, a neighboring restaurant where tables are set up for outdoor dining.
City council members on Monday approved funding two-thirds of the project costs, with a maximum of $32,000. Restaurants in May were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining after nearly three months of being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wrighton said the Gin Mill owners approached the city with the project idea for permanent outdoor dining after implementing temporary dining options outlined in Gov. J.B. Pritkzer's Restore Illinois Plan.
"(Restaurants) have had to re-tool how they provide services especially now that we have entered Phase 4 and they can be open again," said Wrighton. "Some of them have discovered that their traditional clients are still reticent to some degree about eating indoors and so they want to be still making use of the areas that you have ruled to let them use sidewalks and even parking areas."
The area for the proposed project at the Gin Mill would use the city sidewalk immediately in front of the restaurant along Prairie Avenue. Wrighton added other businesses might want to take a similar route and ask for city assistance in funding their projects.
"It is not a time we should be spending money lightly but I see this as an investment that will translate into the kind of fees that the city lives on, which is our food and beverage tax and our sales tax," Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said.
The funds for the Gin Mill's proposed project would come out of local motor fuel tax reserves, which was a point of concern with council members who voted against the measure, including Bill Faber, Pat McDaniel and David Horn.
McDaniel said he wants to support small businesses, but he had some issues with the measure because of parking and Prairie being a narrow road.
Faber said while he was in favor of allowing the restaurant to use the public space, he is not OK with using taxpayer dollars to help a private business because that is not the intended use for local motor fuel tax dollars.
Faber added this would take away from construction or rehabilitation of sidewalks, curbs and roads. "We've spent millions and millions of dollars on downtown. This is not a big expenditure but it is very symbolic and the public perception of us OK-ing this is really going to do harm to the council's reputation."
Moore Wolfe said there is a clause within the local motor fuel tax that allows for the funds to be used toward economic development.
"I have never been one who wanted to put public money into a private business that then competes with other private businesses however, this is public right-of-way that will still belong to the city," said Moore Wolfe. "We wish the Gin Mill many, many decades of success but should they move on it makes another business coming in even more attractive because of an outdoor space like this."
Moore Wolfe reiterated that given the circumstances that the pandemic has put business owners in, it is important especially now to help them. The city has assisted businesses throughout Decatur with establishing pickup lanes for curbside pickup and the park district has been renting out tables for outdoor dining. Several business owners have expressed wanting to implement outdoor dining next year in a similar fashion, Moore Wolfe said.
"Businesses have gone through such an incredibly unprecedented nightmare of a year which has translated into a nightmare for all of us too. I want to do everything we can to support them and encourage them to prosper and grow and I think this is a creative and wonderful opportunity for this community," said Moore Wolfe.
Councilman Chuck Kuhle said he viewed this as a continuation of the city's neighborhood revitalization efforts.
"I think it is great to see all of the outdoor dining that we have had downtown and across the city and if we can play a role in facilitating more outdoor dining I would be in favor of it," said Kuhle, adding that he has heard some concern about losing parking downtown but the majority of residents and business owners he has spoken with are OK with the measure. "These restaurants have had a tough time and anything we can do to help them maintain and create jobs is good for Decatur."
Horn asked Wrighton how long it would take for the city to make up for the expenses related to the project.
"While I certainly think it is reasonable to project that there will be an increase in food and beverage taxes as a result of this," said Wrighton "...it is almost impossible to say how many years it will take and so I would encourage council to evaluate this, not in terms of how many years the payback takes, but whether or not it is an appropriate addition to downtown in the current environment."
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Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro
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