A majority of the Leesburg Town Council appears reluctant to move forward on closing downtown streets for the monthly First Friday festivities.
The idea was broached by Councilman Hugh Forsythe at the council’s August meeting. Forsythe and others have pointed to some dangerous conditions for pedestrians at the increasingly popular event. With crowded sidewalks, some pedestrians have been stepping into the busy downtown streets to avoid others walking in the area, or to dodge on-street dining or signage.
Forsythe said Monday night that since he brought up the idea of closing an area of the downtown streets for First Friday he has received an overwhelming amount of feedback from the public, downtown businesses and property owners. Of those he personally spoke with, Forsythe said the majority supported a street closure, likely King Street between Market and Loudoun streets. Business owners along that block of King Street were also largely in favor of it, he said. But downtown business owners in other areas of the historic district were largely opposed to street closures.
“People against closing [streets] are much more vocal,” he said.
Gwen Pangle, president of the Historic Downtown Leesburg Association, shared a similar assessment. She said a major concern shared by those against closing the block of King Street on First Friday is that it would create a “playpen effect” where visitors to the downtown would largely stay in the area that was closed to traffic.
“I think we’ve scratched the surface of a much larger issue when we talk about closing streets,” she said. “The mission [of First Friday] is to have events that bring business activity downtown. Now we’ve grown First Friday to a point where there’s a problem with the number of people we have downtown. That’s a great problem to have.”
Pangle urged a “collaborative conversation” between members of the HDLA and Town Council on First Friday.
Forsythe said he does not believe that First Friday is a good occasion to experiment with street closures and said another event, like the upcoming Taste of Leesburg, may be a better occasion. Councilman Ron Campbell said he would have preferred to see the HDLA, which runs the monthly event, come forward with a proposal on any First Friday changes.
Councilman Tom Dunn also said he is not in favor of closing streets during First Friday and instead suggested that it may be a better idea to have businesses remove sidewalk obstructions, like sandwich board signs and on-street dining, during the event. Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox said she agreed that “decluttering the sidewalks” may be the best way to address pedestrian safety issues.
But the idea of closing streets during First Friday did have some support, albeit not a majority. Both Councilman Marty Martinez and Mayor Kelly Burk spoke in favor of the measure, with Martinez noting that he didn’t think it would hurt to give it a trial run.
Burk emphasized that, with First Friday increasing in popularity and downtown businesses booming, the issue of pedestrian safety downtown is not one that is going to go away.
“I think at some point we’re going to have to realize we’re going to have to do something,” she said. “I want it on the record that I would close all those streets because I think it would be great for the businesses and make it much more safe.”
Councilman Ken Reid was absent for Monday night’s work session discussion.