Features, Print August 4, 2020

Reunited and it Feels So Downtown – Greeley’s United Plaza and Socially Distanced District

by Dan England

As the tables await the butts that downtown business owners hope will come, officials find themselves in a precarious place: They want crowds, but they don’t want Friday Fest.

Friday Fest helped make Downtown Greeley a hip place with fun, live dance music, a new Go Cup system and hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of fellow revelers.

Friday Fest is now virtual, thanks to COVID-19, and downtown’s been quiet since March, when the outbreak shuttered bars (for the second time now), restaurants and other fun places that made downtown as successful as it’s been in decades. Business owners hope to make some noise — a little bit more, at least — by closing 8th and 9th streets and putting tables out. They also added an open container law that essentially extends the Go Cup law full-time until fall, only with loosened restrictions: Any alcohol is OK now, even if you have some from home, though the idea is to support the businesses on the blocks. The Greeley City Council approved the plan and began it July 1.

It’s started slow, but that’s sort of a relief to both owners and officials who now admit they’d like a few more people.

“The tension point is you don’t want it to become an event,” said Bianca Fisher, director of the Downtown Development Authority in Greeley. “You don’t want it to be Friday Fest. But you do want it to be a resource for the bars and restaurants.”

That resource includes tables spaced farther apart than the recommended six feet, a place for families and friends to gather and eat take-out from restaurants or drink coffee or libations and offer a safe alternative to eating indoors. Downtown business owners paid for the tables, trash barrels, hand washing stations and sanitation to keep it all going.

Pick up a physical copy of the entire August issue at a BandWagon Box in Downtown Greeley and Old Town Fort Collins, or flip through the digital version by clicking here.

Finding a balance between the economic bump and public health makes Fisher wonder how far to go to encourage patrons. Should they bring fire spinners who used to perform at Friday Fest? Balloons? A bubble machine? Maybe some additional lighting? Would that attract too many people and make social distancing impossible? “We still want to look at how we can create an experience,” Fisher said.

The move to unite the downtown plaza is celebrated by those who may not otherwise have supported it and even by those who don’t really stand to benefit from it as much. Bob Hutson, who owns Aunt Helen’s Coffee House with his wife, Aimee Wick-Hutson, approached the city council and admitted he wouldn’t have supported the idea six months ago. 

“We were on a good growth trajectory then,” Hutson said. “Now we have to try something different. What we are doing now still poses some risk, and I wouldn’t have felt the need for it, but now it’s quiet. It’s really a crapshoot if this will work, but we need to get a good gathering space again. That’s what downtown is about.”

Operating any kind of indoor business is dangerous, and no one knows that more than Matt Estrin, owner of Tower 56. One of his employees had a fever and didn’t feel good, so he got tested within 24 hours and was positive for covid. His wife also had it. The illness essentially closed Tower 56 and quarantined his employees for two weeks. The employee had attended a staff meeting the day before, so essentially everyone was exposed.

Matt Estrin, owner of Tower 56 Distilling, which bounced back into socially distanced healthy business after a covid scare amongst his staff.

“He did everything right,” Estrin said. “We would have stayed open if we had staff that wasn’t exposed.”

Even so, no one else got sick, and the employee and his wife both recovered after a brief illness. He’s now operating again because he has food service via the Rio, which gives him a pass from being just a bar. Estrin thinks his distillery’s tasting room is different anyway: Most customers are there to sip drinks and expand their palette, not get loose on shots and seek out a companion for the night.

“What they are trying to avoid is people getting up and mingling,” Estrin said. “We operate so much more like a restaurant than we do a bar or nightclub anyway.”

Estrin believes the outdoor seating will help his business as well as others. “There’s a lot of pent-up desire to get out but also still a lot of fear,” he said. “So this is a good compromise for both things.”

The new setup, which will last through September 12, has Ryan Gentry “wildly excited” for it, even though he owns more traditional bars and nightclubs that didn’t stand to benefit much from it. 

“It’s not as impactful for me, but it helps the downtown community, which innately will help me,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of family friendly events, but now we have a number of people down there, and that helps everyone in my opinion.”

Patrons of downtown restaurants including Luna’s Tacos & Tequila can enjoy outdoor dining and drinking at socially distanced family-style tables.

Ely Corliss said Luna’s Tacos and Tequila, the restaurant he owns with Brian Seifried, who helped push the ordinance through, will benefit, even if his Moxi Theater remains closed for now.

“It’s so great to have that flexibility and lots of extra space,” Corliss said. “I think it’s very cool and very bold of the city council to go ahead and do it. Opening up the plaza for dining will inevitably help everyone get back to business.”

Tables at Greeley’s United Downtown Plaza will be “open,” allowing patrons to consume alcoholic drinks as long as they aren’t in a glass bottle, and food, preferably both from downtown businesses, from 11 a.m. until midnight Monday-Friday and from 8 a.m. until midnight Saturday-Sunday. Located on 8th and 9th streets between 8th and 9th avenues, they are free to use and families are welcome.