Downtown Middlebury merchants get first taste of bridge work

MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury merchants earlier this month got their first taste of construction disruption caused by the rail bridges-related work, and they plan on using that experience to better prepare for the more intensive work that will unfold later this month and again next spring.
A sampling of downtown business owners gave the Independent their perspective on how their bottom lines were affected by the first phase of construction to get temporary rail bridges installed in Main Street and Merchants Row. Those spans will be in place for the next four years while workers demolish the current 1920s-era spans and ultimately replace them with a massive concrete tunnel. That $52 million tunnel project is expected to get under way next spring — unless the Federal Highway Administration calls for a more intensive environmental review of the construction site.
Local merchants gave varying accounts on the impacts of construction that occurred last month. That work resulted in closure of Printer’s Alley, which connects Main Street to the Marble Works complex. It included relocating the Main Street water line and driving “mini-pile” supports under the two bridges, which resulted in some noise and temporary lane closure and loss of parking on Main Street and Merchants Row.
John Melanson, owner of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café at 24 Merchants Row, said his sales were down around $5,000 this June compared to the same month last year.
“The railroad certainly did affect my business,” Melanson said in an email. “The week after they moved the equipment, business shot right up. I’m going for all I can before they come back.”
Melanson is taking some steps he hopes will shore up his revenues in anticipation of the work to come. He’s renovated his second “Carol’s” location at 7404 Route 7 in New Haven. Melanson began using that space in 2015 as a grab-and-go venue for people wanting to electronically pre-order and pick up coffee and/or a muffin while on their morning commute. He re-opened the second location on July 11.
“I am hoping it does well enough to sustain Carol’s in Middlebury through the work on the bridge,” he said. “If things get worse than what happened in June, I may shut the shop down, pay the rent, reduce the cost of utilities, reduce the cost of goods and eliminate labor costs in order to save Carol’s.”
Alice Quesnel, manager of the Battell Block, said she heard little construction-related buzz from tenants in what is the downtown’s largest mixed-use building.
“I think everyone was kept in the loop,” she said, citing specifically the efforts of Jim Gish, the local liaison for the project.
Becky Dayton is owner of the iconic Vermont Book Shop at 38 Main St. She gave the following assessment of the impact of June construction:
“So far, the work hasn’t significantly impacted our revenues, but I’ve heard enough complaints from people about how difficult it is to park and to circulate around town that I am still very concerned,” she said. “The lack of access between Main Street and the Marble Works has been particularly onerous. I worry about local people’s tolerance for the inconvenience diminishing over time and visitors having a negative first impression of the downtown.”
Nancie Dunn owns the popular Sweet Cecily shop at 42 Main St. She said she noted a “bit of a decline in business” in June. But she’s more concerned about the second and final phase of temporary bridge work that is tentatively projected to run from July 21 to Aug. 18. That work will include demolition of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges and  installation of the temporary spans, followed by final paving, landscaping and line striping. Around-the-clock weekend work days are currently slated for July 21-23, July 28-30 and Aug. 4-6. Otherwise, work will take place from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to a schedule released by the town.
“July is a hugely busy time,” Dunn said of typical July sales. “I’m anxious to see what happens during the next phase.”
With that in mind, merchants are working with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, local project liaison Jim Gish, the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) and the citizens’ group Neighbors Together to learn from what happened in June and take steps to minimize the late July/early August impacts.
Karen Duguay is marketing director for the BMP, which among other things advocates for downtown businesses and property owners. She outlined some plans to boost awareness of — and  access to — downtown Middlebury later this month:
•  More signs to direct locals and tourists to parking and businesses that might be temporarily obscured by construction.
•  An information booth on Cannon Park from which volunteers would dispense helpful advice on local activities, parking, shopping tips and other downtown topics. Duguay said the booth must be cleared by the Middlebury planning office.
•  An “extended shopping day,” tentatively scheduled for Aug. 2, featuring some added evening hours at downtown stores.
•  An Addison County Transit Resources bus dedicated to the downtown throughout construction of the temporary bridges.
The proposal calls for the shuttle to run Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., in a continuous loop with stops at the Mill Street parking lot, town offices, Post Office and municipal swimming pool.
The Middlebury selectboard took some additional steps on Tuesday to support downtown merchants and shoppers. Selectboard members unanimously agreed to:
•  Find $2,000 within the current municipal budget for giveaways of “Middlebury Money” that can be used for purchases at local stores. Those giveaways will specifically target riders of the new shuttle service and an upcoming raffle.
•  Placement of some bleacher seating in Triangle Park for people to view the bridge demolition work from a safe distance.
“We are trying to turn (construction) into more of a positive by creating a viewing area,” Duguay told the selectboard, noting children’s fascination with heavy equipment.
Selectman Victor Nuovo said seniors too would be avid spectators.
“It would bring out the community,” Nuovo said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
“We are very aware of the (construction) impacts on merchants and we will do anything we can to help them and advocate for them,” Duguay said.
She said she spoke with a variety of downtown store owners following the June construction, and heard diverse feedback.
“Some businesses reported being affected, while some didn’t think there was much of an impact,” Duguay said.
Meanwhile — in a move that Middlebury College officials said is unrelated to the rail bridges project — the 51 Main at the Bridge restaurant and entertainment spot has closed for the summer.
51 Main is operated by the college. Bill Burger, the institution’s vice president for marketing and communications, explained the summer is typically a slow season for 51 Main. So college officials decided to re-deploy those workers to on-campus dining facilities to better serve the many students at its world languages school.
“No one was laid off,” he said of the 51 Main staff.
Dayton lamented the temporary loss of 51 Main, which has been a draw to the downtown.
“With 51 Main’s preemptive summer closure, I worry that we will soon see more businesses having to make very tough decisions regarding the value of continuing to operate in increasingly unfavorable conditions,” Dayton said.
Officials with the BMP and Addison County Chamber of Commerce will meet within then next few weeks to discuss a broader strategy to help businesses when the tunnel project begins in earnest next spring.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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