When elected officials cite the "free market" to justify meddling in said market, you know you are in trouble. For downtown Manchester restaurant owners, the trouble is real, as aldermen showed last week.
Last year, aldermen approved a plan to shut down a section of Hanover Street from Chestnut Street to Nutfield Lane. The idea was to create a "block party" that would draw customers to downtown. It worked, sort of. Customers came to the handful of restaurants on that block. Many other downtown restaurants lost business.
The idea is up for discussion again this year, and the owners of 16 downtown establishments have petitioned aldermen not to approve it. Not only did the street closure block easy access to their establishments, they told aldermen, and take away parking spaces, already in short supply, but the event drew their customers to the other restaurants.
"This winter was very tough for everyone. We're just starting to spring back," Ed Sekenski, owner of Doogie's Bar and Grill, told the aldermen. "If this vote goes through, we'll see another business close,"
Alderman Pat Long, who represents downtown's Ward 3, gave a disappointingly ill-informed response to the petition. "It's a free market. You should be encouraging businesses to prosper," he said. "People hear someone playing saxophone, piano, they're going to walk by. The idea is to get foot-traffic in front of the businesses."
Sorry, Alderman Long, but when the government closes a public street for the benefit of a handful of businesses, that is a textbook case of interference in the free market.
If aldermen want to stick to free market principles, they will leave the street open and resist the temptation to direct patrons to any particular businesses. If they want to meddle in the market, then there is a far better way than shutting down a public street. They can arrange for more festivals or "block parties" in Veterans Park. Although that favors downtown restaurants over others, at least it leaves public thoroughfares open to traffic, draws people from outside the city and does not run the risk of putting some downtown restaurants out of business.