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Unionville Main Street shops 'totally pumped' to reopen, expand outdoor patios, sales

Provincial stage 2 reopening, relaxed Markham rules for expansion 'really big deal'
June 22, 2020
Heidi Riedner

Unionville’s iconic Main Street shops were back in business with the rest of York Region as part of the province’s stage 2 reopening plan June 19, but they will have to wait until Canada Day to take full advantage of cuts to city red tape to help recoup lost revenue due to COVID-19 closures.

While businesses were allowed to open, physical distancing measures still in force limit full capacity, which is why Markham council approved relaxed rules for patio expansions and outdoor retail space at a special council meeting June 11.

The move means restaurants and shops can expand their patios and retail sales into outside areas such as parking lots without the usual permit and application fees or onerous site plans.

Timelines for temporary liquor licences under the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario were also extended.

“It’s actually a really big deal for our businesses,” said Sara Sterling, the executive director of the Unionville BIA, which represents 57 businesses, including 14 restaurants.

“They were already totally pumped about opening the patios to begin with, and all are planning on expanding.”

While places like Jake’s can easily expand, others, particularly on the west side of Main Street, such as the Old Country Inn, don’t have as much wiggle room -- with back parking lots facing garbage bins and HVAC units.

But they will have about two weeks to figure it out since the new city bylaws, under provincial legislation, don’t come into effect for 20 days after passing.

Parking restrictions passed by council May 12 for the west side of the street will also help boost foot traffic and add to the already unique atmosphere of the historic district that is already a “must-see” tourist destination.

“Visiting Main Street Unionville truly is a unique experience for all ages,” said Sterling, adding the area still boasts many of its original buildings from when it was founded in 1794, like the original Firehall, which now houses Old Firehall Confectionery, as well as the original Post Office, which is now Il Postino restaurant.

In an effort to reduce through-traffic and make the street even more pedestrian-friendly during emergency measures, "Local Traffic Only signs were also installed.

Visitors are still welcome to drive on the street when coming to shop and explore, but the hope is to divert through traffic to Kennedy Road.

“Of course we want people to come back, enjoy and spend money on the street, we just don’t want all of those vehicles that are just driving through.”

The opening of patios was the “best news possible,” added Sterling, because they will bring a lot of people back to street.

Relaxed rules for expansion that last well into the fall will also allow business owners to recoup revenues lost during the past three months, she added.

But Sterling noted that most of the 14 restaurants, 14 shops offering items like clothing, souvenirs and jewelry, as well as the 29 service-related businesses like spas and hair salons, financial advisers and professional offices managed to weather the COVID storm.

“A lot of the retail stores have done quite well, using social media and Instagram to reach customers. We haven’t had one store that had to close as a result.”

Women’s fashion store, Lulu’s, for example, did “gangbusters” with daily posts, delivery service and adding new customers between March and May.

The BIA also made a concerted effort to assist businesses, making sure they had all the information about the various government programs available to them.

“There’s only so much we can do, but we did try to make sure they had access to all the help they could get, as well as highlighting the businesses on social media that were doing delivery and curbside pickup, and ensuring everyone got as much coverage as they could,” Sterling said.

Blacksmith Bistro was the only place to close down, but that wasn’t necessarily a decision entirely related to the closures, Sterling added.

The opening of patio season, albeit at limited capacity, has raised the spirits of many, with shops eager to expand by July 1.

“Everybody’s excited to open,” Sterling said. “We’ll get the patios going and, hopefully, we have some good weekends between now and when those expansions can take effect around July 1.