Part 1 of rail bridge project done; businesses wary of ‘big dig’
MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury merchants are assessing the economic fall-out from the recently completed installation of temporary bridges on Merchants Row and Main Street. Business owners located closest to the construction zones predictably reported the most substantial losses, while virtually all of those polled by the Independent praised the town and Kubricky construction for their outreach during the project.
“The sky didn’t fall, but on most of the days that both Merchants Row and Main Street were closed, we saw our sales down by as much as a half,” said Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop that was located in the eye of the proverbial construction storm on Main Street.
Dayton said the town’s Aug. 2 street party — which included expanded business hours and a raffle — provided a little boost, but unfortunately didn’t offset the losses brought on by construction detours and loss of area parking.
Meanwhile, Town Hall Theater Executive Director Doug Anderson said the THT didn’t miss a beat during the project, which concluded on Aug. 12.
“Attendance was high for our productions and summer classes — we even sold out two nights of ‘Annie!’” Anderson said. “(Local project liaison) Jim Gish and the construction crew were in constant contact and went to great lengths to schedule bridge work around our more important events. We didn’t hear a single construction sound during a performance all summer long. ”
Those views are reflective of what Gish said were mixed reports from merchants regarding bridge project impacts.
“It was not a black-and-white story, from my perspective,” Gish said. “I talked to just about every merchant several times during the course of the three weeks… Some had good sales, some held their own, and some were hit hard by the closure. It depended a lot on the type of business and physical location.”
Gish said he and others involved with the project are putting together a “portfolio” of ideas to help soften the economic blow when construction begins next spring on the 360-foot tunnel that will replace the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges. Downtown merchants are particularly concerned about a 10-week period during the summer of 2020 when both roads will be closed for the most intensive construction.
Gish is optimistic about the future given what he’s seen so far in the way of volunteerism and adaptability. Fifty-four different people took two-hour shifts in an information booth set up to guide people to downtown destinations during the three-week project, according to Gish.
“The community as a whole showed its resilience in the way it adapted to road closures, lane closures and the challenges of getting around town,” Gish said. “I think the community also showed its great volunteer spirit.”
Some business owners, however, are looking to 2020 with great trepidation.
Carl Roesch is co-owner of The Diner on Merchants Row. He said his restaurant’s revenues dipped around 50 percent during the temporary rail bridges project. Potential customers found it hard to get to the restaurant because of construction-related detours and a shortage of parking, according to Roesch.
“People seemed confused about where to go,” he said.
He voiced frustration that the precious few spaces on nearby South Pleasant Street were often occupied by the vehicles of construction workers toiling on the Merchants Row bridge or on a separate renovation project in the Battell Block.
While he knew he was going to take a financial hit, Roesch kept The Diner open through construction largely out of loyalty to his employees. He’s not sure if he’ll be able to do the same thing during the 10-week crunch in 2020.
“It might make more sense for us to close during that period,” he said.
Fortunately, business at The Diner had returned to normal by Monday, according to Roesch. And he said the change in traffic pattern on Merchants Row (it is now one-way east toward South Pleasant Street) does not appear to be affecting his customer flow.
Dayton believes a 10-week repeat of what merchants saw this summer could become a back-breaker without some kind of financial aid package.
“I wish I could express sunny optimism about the future and I know I sound like a broken record, but the unavoidable truth is that we can’t survive 10 weeks of that kind of impact,” Dayton said. “It’s neither reasonable nor rational to expect the community to sustain the support they gave on one (Aug. 2) evening over the course of that many weeks. I’ve had lots of wonderful customers express a commitment to ‘do their part,’ and I certainly don’t want to diminish their admirable intentions, but I won’t back down from the position that survival — for all of us — is going to require direct compensation from the project budget for some portion of our losses.”
John Melanson is owner of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Merchants Row. He recently completed a Q&A for the Independent in which he described the bridge project’s impacts and his strategy to meet the economic challenge. He’s opened a second Carol’s location on the east side of Route 7, a couple miles north of New Haven Junction.
“At the beginning (of the project), in June, sales were really down,” Melanson said. “But this past (bout of construction) hasn’t been as bad. It depends on how you look at it, because the summer is really when I make most of the money because of tourism, and that was down. So we just about broke even, but we should be making a lot more at this time of year.”
Carol’s has built a loyal following over the years. Melanson said he’s received “several contributions, just individuals giving me money and saying ‘Please stay open.’ Some anonymous, some I know.”
Karen Duguay is coordinator of the Better Middlebury Partnership, an organization that advocates for downtown businesses.
“It sounds like several businesses got through the construction period without a noticeable loss in business, while some others saw a pretty big decrease in their day-to-day,” she said of the post-construction feedback she has received. “So far, we haven’t identified any real pattern or thread to determine why there was so much variation.”
Duguay anticipates similar mixed results after the tunnel project kicks off.
“Each of the downtown merchants has their own business model, various number of employees, varied products and customer types and a different threshold for loss so it’s hard to predict how the larger project will ultimately affect businesses,” she said. “However, I was very encouraged by the community support that we saw during this period and I have no reason to believe that the desire to support our local businesses will go away.”
She believes the temporary bridges installation has given the town a chance to “test out a few ideas” — such as the Aug. 2 block party, information booth and free shuttle.
“I think we’re now coming into the bigger project with an advantage and we’ll be looking for many more ways to get people into the stores and restaurants.” Duguay said.
Work next spring will include construction of a drainage system for the railroad bed. That work will largely take place at the site of the former Lazarus building at the intersection of Main Street and Printers Alley. Work will include construction of two catch basins (one in Triangle Park, the other in the railroad right of way), a drainage retaining pit and related micro-tunneling at a depth of more than 30 feet that will lead to the Otter Creek, according to Gish.
Also planned for next year is construction of a temporary access road to the rear of the Battell Block and the undergrounding of overhead utilities in the vicinity of Printer’s Alley and the Lazarus building.
Gish said the town will work closely with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and Kubricky to try to keep Printer’s Alley open to pedestrian traffic through the three-year project.
Crews next spring are expected to be on the job from around 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the work week, Gish said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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