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Gay Street Open Air Market receives Community Partnership Award

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

By Malcolm Johnstone, published September 20, 2021

Pennsylvania State Representative Dianne Herrin.

At a recent statewide event, Dianne Herrin, former Mayor of West Chester and current State Representative, was recognized in the Organizational Excellence & Community Partnerships category for creating the Gay Street Open Air Marketplace for downtown West Chester. The award was presented on September 14 during the Pennsylvania Downtown Center's annual Award Reception & Gala, held in downtown Reading. Emily Pisano accepted the award on her behalf.

Downtown West Chester, like all other Main Streets throughout the nation, is reinventing how business is done in response to COVID-19. There is a need to adhere to safe social distancing for those who gather in public places. To meet these standards, more space was needed to accommodate fewer people.

It’s not only a response to the pandemic, it’s a recognition that downtown needs to go through certain design changes to put the safety of shoppers and diners first.

The ongoing health crisis effects all restaurants, retailers, and most of the professional businesses.

To address the crisis, then West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin convened a task force called Main Street Strong. It was made up of local business leaders, planners, and public safety officials who developed a recovery plan to guide the downtown community as they adjust to the new environment.

“This is a very challenging time,” said Dianne Herrin. “Yet we’re finding this situation is also opening doors to new opportunities. It allows our community to come together with a collective mindset of creative problem-solving, define how the town will reopen to maximize success, and seize the opportunity to address deficiencies in the ‘status quo’ way of doing business.”

The first order of business was figuring out how to create an Open-Air Marketplace on four-blocks of Gay Street between Matlack and Darlington Streets in the heart of downtown West Chester. Some 34 restaurants and 27 retail shops are located there. The idea was to open the two-lane street to pedestrians-only who will find the additional open space easier to maintain safe social distancing. Further, training exercises were performed by EMS and fire organizations to modify emergency response protocols to continue to ensure safety for patrons.

Part of the al fresco dining experience in downtown West Chester.

While the pedestrian mall would exist 24/7, parking for deliveries and customers needed to be maintained. The Main Street Strong plan therefore ensured that all North/South cross streets remained open to vehicles, and temporary loading/unloading zones were created at the end of each block of Gay Street along the cross streets.

But the biggest obstacle was that Gay Street is still considered a state highway by PennDOT. As a result, the approval process was lengthy and complicated. In fact, a consultant needed to be hired for the massive amount of paperwork. Homeland Security practices, including unmovable barricades, were to be also put into place. Such extensive planning added to the expense of the project and delayed the project opening by about a month.

The final result made it worth it. Restaurants were able to locate a large number of their tables onto the street where there is plenty of room to dine safely while masked strollers make their way to a favorite boutique. Most businesses reported a much-needed uptick in sales.

To add interest to the streetscape, artists were asked to provide original works. Pictured is a work of ceramic tiles attached to so-called bin blocks by artist Rhoda Kahler,

Additional features for the project include:

• Multiple signs posted throughout which instruct visitors of the required safety protocols.

• With the cooperation of the municipal government, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board allowed liquor license extensions into the street area.

• Businesses may provide validated customer parking for either of the two municipal garages situated nearby.

• Local artists provided painted designs on the barricades, which soften the look but not the effectiveness.

• The total budget came to about $35,000 paid for by the West Chester BID with funds borrowed from the municipality.

About the Pennsylvania Downtown Center

The Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC) is the only statewide nonprofit dedicated solely to the revitalization of the commonwealth’s core communities. Its mission is to build and support the capacity of local non-profit organizations, municipalities and individuals to enhance the overall well-being and sustainability of Pennsylvania’s “core” communities. PDC accomplishes this mission by engaging local community leaders and volunteers, and educating them, to advance the sense of place, quality of life and economic vitality of the Commonwealth’s downtowns, traditional neighborhood business districts and nearby residential areas.

Malcolm Johnstone may be reached at

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