Niles outdoor dining experience officially debuts on Second street

NILES — Benches, picnic tables, wind breaks and a large fire pit now inhabit the blocked off portion of Second Street in downtown Niles.

After a soft opening over the past weekend, the Niles Outdoor Dining Experience, or affectionately, “The NODE,” has officially been launched on Second Street, tucked inside the intersection of Main and Second streets.

“It’s ahead of the curve,” said Ryan Cheevers of St. Joseph, Michigan. “Niles is doing things a lot of these communities need to do.”

The area was conceived as a way to give local businesses, restaurants and bars a way to allow people to enjoy their food in the downtown environment where they are located – safely outdoors, with COVID-19 precautions in place. The Niles City Council voted on Nov. 23 to approve the area to be blocked off until Jan. 11, where the council can re-evaluate its impact, whether to renew the area or not.

Cheevers said the set up reminded him of cities in Colorado, where he remembered outdoor areas blocked off through the year for people to enjoy food, drinks and entertainment periodically.

Charles Nelson, who owns On Base Production in downtown Niles, sipped from a beer next to the blazing fire pit with Cheevers.

“Being down here on Saturday, and seeing it unofficially open, seeing all of the people who came down – residents of Niles who I had never met before came out,” Nelson said. “People were walking their dog, and they wanted to come back after seeing the area.”

Nelson was a part of the group working with the Niles Downtown Development Authority who worked on the NODE.

“I had some input, but not as much input as other people,” Nelson said. “I would say people like Justin Flagel, Lisa Croteau and Niles City Administrator Ric Huff definitely helped push this and make it a possibility more than me.”

Croteau, director of marketing and administration for the Niles DDA, was out visiting the NODE Monday afternoon as well.

“The fire pit is warm,” Croteau said. “It kept me warm enough today. It’s 450,000 BTUs. I’m told a house heater is 8,000 BTUs.”

The firepit was built and donated by Schrader Steel Fabricating Services in Niles, while the wooden windbreak breakers around the seating areas were donated by Kamp Pallets Inc.

Leader Publications was donating tables that would fit with stools for outdoor seating.

“We are working with local artists to decorate the windbreaks,” Croteau said.

The Niles DDA is currently working on creating a central QR code to be posted in the NODE area, for people visiting the space to scan to find the nearby restaurants’ menus and be able to order through an app or over the phone. Delivery is the goal with food, Croteau said. To-go cocktails and beer would still need to be picked up by the adult purchaser and brought, sealed, to the area to be consumed on-site.

The public restrooms at the public parking lot located near the Second and Sycamore street intersection is almost ready to be opened to for public use, as well.

Croteau said signage would be put in place to remind community members at the NODE to wear their masks if they were not eating or drinking. The tables would be limited to seating six, and they are spaced out at least six feet to allow for proper social distancing in the outdoor space.

Cheevers said he hoped the NODE would become a long-standing installation.

“It will become part of the identity of Niles,” he said.

Nelson said he was happy to see the area come together and hoped it would draw people from outside of Niles to visit the city.

“I can say how great Niles is until I’m blue in the face,” Nelson said. “[Hopefully this] will be a specific draw that brings people to try it out for the first time. Then, they’ll come out to the shops, they’ll come out to the restaurants, and they’ll come out to the businesses.”

The Niles DDA meets Monday evening to vote on hours of operation for the NODE.

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