The Easton town council will meet this afternoon in a workshop session to discuss downtown business. The meeting comes less than a week after the council decided in a previous workshop meeting to halt plans to close off the block of Washington Street in front of the courthouse for a pedestrian mall, outdoor concerts, and expanded outdoor dining for nearby restaurants.
In a July 12 Facebook post, Easton Town Council President Megan Cook said she is “more confident than ever that we will revisit and approve the proposed Washington Street Promenade” and anticipated “another meeting with the date and time to be announced as quickly as possible, for this very purpose.”
Today’s workshop meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the town council chambers and will be streamed live at Mid Shore Community Television’s Facebook page.
In her post on the Megan Cook for Easton Town Council President Facebook page, Cook wrote:
“As President of the Town Council, and as a longtime advocate for a more vibrant downtown Easton, I have been a strong supporter of the proposed Washington Street Promenade.
“This concept, which has proven to be highly successful in communities across Maryland, will be a lifeline for our local and independent businesses and will provide Easton’s families with an enjoyable and memorable downtown experience.
“I was disappointed by last week’s abrupt postponement of the Washington Street Promenade. The decision, and the process in which that decision was made, has understandably shaken public confidence in our town’s business climate and undermined our town’s hard-earned reputation for open and transparent government.
“To those who share my disappointment and my concerns about last week’s decision, let me assure you that it was merely a pause to, and not the end of, the Washington Street Promenade. I remain more committed than ever to a solution that achieves the economic, fiscal and quality-of-life benefits of a street closure while addressing issues that have been raised over the past several days.
“Having spoken with Mayor Willey and my Council colleagues over the past several days, I am more confident than ever that we will revisit and approve the proposed Washington Street Promenade. I anticipate that there will be another meeting with the date and time to be announced as quickly as possible, for this very purpose.
“It is my vision that the Washington Street Promenade will be remembered as the beginning of a renewed commitment by all of our town’s stakeholders toward a more vibrant downtown Easton, an economic climate that inspires innovation, and a community that offers our families the best and most memorable experiences of any in our state.”
In response to Cook’s post, one local businessman is asking the council to lay out the process for establishing any future pedestrian promenade in downtown Easton and offering a list of items for the council to consider.
In a July 13 letter to the town attorney, Zach A. Smith, an attorney for Bluepoint Hospitality, Beowulf Energy, Bluepoint Development, and their affiliates, said Bluepoint would be affected “by any plans that involve street closures, changes to traffic patterns, and the elimination of parking in and around downtown.” Bluepoint is owned and operated by Paul Prager, CEO of Beowulf Energy.
A copy of the letter also was hand-delivered to 84 downtown businesses, according to Bluepoint.
Bluepoint asked the town to address seven questions, including whether the council was considering new plans for the promenade, if such plans were available for public review, any timeline for public comment and council action, and if there were any studies/surveys of the current needs of downtown businesses.
In the letter, Smith also asked the town to consider 15 items, including:
• Providing direct notice to all downtown business owners
• Identifying specific goals and objectives for a promenade
• Hiring a traffic engineer to examine any proposed street closures and traffic diversions
• The need for additional police resources, sanitation, and publicly available, ADA accessible restroom facilities
• Getting input from the Easton Police Department, Easton Volunteer Fire Department, Talbot County Emergency Medical Services, University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton, and the town’s historic district commission, planning commission and planning staff.
• Having downtown business owners meet and develop a plan to present to the council with Tracy Ward from the Easton Economic Development Corporation recommended as a group facilitator. Bluepoint offered to host such a meeting at its auditorium on Washington Street to allow for proper social distancing.
The complete letter from Smith to Town Attorney Sharon M. VanEmburgh is below:
I am writing on behalf of Bluepoint Hospitality, Beowulf Energy, Bluepoint Development, and their affiliates (collectively, “Bluepoint”), regarding recent discussions and actions by the Town Council related to the possible establishment of a pedestrian promenade in downtown Easton.
As the owner and operator of numerous properties and businesses in downtown, Bluepoint will undoubtedly be impacted by any plans that involve street closures, changes to traffic patterns, and the elimination of parking in and around downtown. Even when such changes may be undertaken with the best of intentions, as I am sure they were here, the unintended consequences of such changes may have adverse impacts to downtown businesses, employees, and customers. For this reason, Bluepoint became very concerned by the Council’s recent decision to abruptly close what is arguably the busiest segment of the busiest street in downtown for a prolonged and open-ended period of time.
This initiative by the Town appears to have been hastily rolled out, without adequate consideration of traffic impacts and without any meaningful effort by the Town to engage all individual downtown business owners to discuss such plans in advance of implementation. As you know, the Council voted unanimously on July 7th to shelve this initial concept, after hearing concerns raised by individual Council Members, the Easton Police Department, and some downtown business owners, including Bluepoint. Bluepoint applauds this decision by the Council, and appreciates its recognition that such a significant undertaking must be carefully planned and executed to avoid potential adverse impacts to the overall downtown business community.
Based on recent public comments by Council President Megan Cook, it appears that the Council may soon consider another iteration of the downtown promenade concept. Bluepoint would like to participate in any future public discussion of any new plan(s) to ensure that the interests of its businesses, employees, and customers are considered.
Accordingly, Bluepoint has several questions related to where the Council currently stands in this process, and what that process may look like moving forward. Specifically, please provide responses to the following questions:
1. Is the Council currently considering a new plan(s) for the promenade? If so, is that plan(s) available for review by the public? If so, where?
2. If and when any new plan(s) is made available, will there be an opportunity for review and comment by the public in advance of any Council deliberations? How will the plan(s) be made available to the public? How long will the public have to review any plan(s) before the Council may take action?
3. How will the Council provide notice to the public regarding any review and deliberations on any new plan(s)?
4. In light of the current pandemic, and anticipation that there may be considerable public interest moving forward, how will the Council ensure proper social distancing and other safety protocols during its public review process?
5. Are there specific stated goals and objectives that the Council is trying to achieve by establishing a promenade? If so, what are those goals and objectives? How will success or failure be measured?
6. Have there been any studies of the current needs of downtown businesses? Have there been any surveys of downtown business owners inquiring into their current needs? If so, are these studies and/or surveys publicly available? If so, where?
7. Bluepoint understands that the Town has engaged RK&K civil engineers to provide some level of input on potential traffic impacts. Has the Town given RK&K a specific scope of services to be provided? If so, is that document publicly available? Has RK&K made any recommendations to the Town regarding the scope of services that it recommends under the circumstances? If so, will the Town authorize RK&K to perform any recommended analysis, and provide the amount time that may be needed to complete such? Will the Town make any recommendations from RK&K regarding the recommended scope of services publicly available?
In addition to seeking information regarding the questions above, Bluepoint would like to offer a few initial comments to the Council for consideration moving forward. Once any new plan(s) is made publicly available, I anticipate that Bluepoint may have additional substantive comments based on that specific plan(s), but the comments below are threshold matters that Bluepoint believes the Council should consider in advance of, or concurrent with, the development of any new plan(s).
Please forward the following initial comments to the Council for consideration:
1. Consider providing direct notice to all downtown business owners to seek their engagement in this discussion. Discussions and notices occurring on social media platforms reach some individuals, but may not reach all important constituencies. Additionally, discussions on social media platforms may discourage some from participating and/or speaking candidly. Bluepoint believes strongly that the Council’s deliberations on this matter should occur in a public meeting of the entire Council where informed comments and constructive debate are encouraged.
2. If the Council has not done so already, consider identifying specific goals and objectives that the Council wants to achieve, and consider if a promenade is likely to produce the desired outcome(s).
3. Consider the appropriate frequency and duration of any promenade that may be needed to achieve the desired outcome(s).
4. Consider potential traffic impacts related to any street closures and the resulting traffic diversions. If the Council has not done so already, consider engaging a professional traffic engineer to ensure that any changes to traffic patterns do not cause unsafe and/or otherwise undesirable conditions.
5. Consider the potential impacts to businesses, employees, and customers if important public parking opportunities are eliminated, including impacts to the elderly and individuals with disabilities.
6. Consider the potential impact that the design, size, configuration, and location of a promenade may have on downtown. Recommend requesting input from design professionals regarding important considerations related to the form and function of this type of feature.
7. Consider if there may be alternatives that provide broader benefits to the overall downtown business community, and/or may result in less harmful unintended consequences.
8. In light of the current pandemic and the increasing infection rate here locally, consider how the design of the promenade can ensure proper social distancing and other recommended safety protocols.
9. Consider the need for additional police resources and the associated costs, including any overtime pay and the costs of any additional equipment that may be needed.
10. Consider the need for additional restroom facilities, the maintenance thereof and the associated costs, and who will be responsible for such costs. Consider the need to ensure the provision of clean, ADA accessible and convenient restroom facilities.
11. Consider the need for additional sanitation, particularly in light of the current pandemic, and the associated costs.
12. Recommend requesting input from the Easton Police Department, the Easton Fire Department, and Talbot County Emergency Medical Services.
13. Recommend requesting input from the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center, to the extent that the promenade may involve a street closure.
14. Recommend requesting input from the Town’s Historic District Commission, Planning Commission and Planning staff.
15. Consider asking downtown business owners to meet in advance of any further Council deliberations to develop a plan from that group to be presented to the Council for consideration. Bluepoint is willing to host such a meeting at its auditorium on Washington Street, which will allow for proper social distancing. Such a meeting will allow business owners to discuss internally and perhaps develop a group consensus on how to best proceed.
Bluepoint recommends that Tracy Ward from the Easton Economic Development Corporation participate in such a meeting to act as a group facilitator. Assuming a consensus is reached, Tracy can then present a plan to the Council using one voice that is informed by the comments of all applicable stakeholders. Tracy can also include any minority opinions that any individual group member(s) may want relayed to the Council, and/or any individual business owner will obviously be free to address the Council directly during any subsequent Council meeting.
Bluepoint believes that careful consideration of the above should be given by the Council before it moves forward with developing and implementing any new plan(s). Bluepoint applauds the Council’s efforts to support downtown, and looks forward to participating in any upcoming public discussions. Furthermore, please know that Bluepoint stands ready to assist the Town with the design and execution of an appropriate plan that involves input from all stakeholders and that is carefully tailored to benefit the overall downtown business community.
Given the urgency expressed by the Council President in a recent social media post, it appears that the Council may be moving forward very quickly on this issue in the coming days. In light of that anticipated action, Bluepoint will be grateful if you can provide responses to the questions posed herein as soon as possible. Please also proceed by forwarding Bluepoint’s initial comments to the Council for consideration. Note, to ensure that others are kept aware of what is transpiring, Bluepoint intends to hand-deliver this letter to the owners of other downtown businesses. Bluepoint also plans to share any response(s) received from the Town with this same group to ensure transparency and the distribution of all important information.