Jobs Put Businesses Over A Barrel

March 2, 2005
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WYOMING — Day-Glo orange barrels and barricades have become a common part of life for West Michigan residents and businesses. Crews dig, pave and repave through the spring and summer, snow comes, concrete cracks and the orange barrels come out again.

When an ambitious project comes along — the S-Curve, M-6 or any of a number of 28th Street intersections or highway ramps — local businesses often are forced to invest in the roadways, too — through devastating revenue losses.

Restaurant Partners Inc. President Jeff Lobdell fears he will be decorating some of his restaurants with orange barrels again this year.

A veteran of road construction disruptions, Lobdell had a number of properties sitting in construction zones last summer. The worst disruption was felt by his Bagel Beanery at Breton Road and 28th Street SE where six months of construction knocked sales down 20 percent, or roughly $100,000.

His Sundance Grill location in downtown Grand Rapids has operated amid barricades for a good portion of the past year, and will again during this summer's Pearl Street construction work.

Now his busiest restaurant, the Beltline Bar, on the corner of Division Avenue and 28th Street, is expected to sit in the crosshairs of a number of significant traffic disruptions for at least half of the coming year.

In April, MDOT will begin a six-month, $6 million project to replace the M-11 (

28th Street
) bridge over U.S. 131. At that same time, a $4.5 million project will begin on U.S. 131 itself between Hall and 28th streets to repave the Plaster Creek Bridge and replace a center pier on the Burton Street overpass, periodically shutting down the Burton and Hall ramps.

A week later, the city of Grand Rapids will begin its $3 million renovation of Division Avenue from Alger to 28th streets, detouring northbound traffic of the most accessible detour from U.S. 131 during Phase 1 and running one lane each way during Phase 2.

A short distance south, the Kent County Road Commission will have 44thStreet torn up from Division to Eastern avenues, finishing off the conversion of the street into a boulevard.

"I know it's a necessary evil, but sometimes it's tough to swallow for a small businessperson," Lobdell said. "It's fortunate that I have a couple of businesses to shoulder the load, but not everybody does."

Lobdell's concern isn't so much the roadwork or MDOT's communication with the local community, which he says has been reassuring.

"My concerns are the communications between MDOT, city of Grand Rapids, city of Wyoming and city of Kentwood," he said. "They keep having these multiple projects within the same region and it seems like you're getting converted from one construction project to another.

"It's really harmful to the business community and it's frustrating for the general population."

Lobdell questions the logic in performing three separate projects within a quarter-mile area at the same time.

"I would rather have one road in repair in the neighborhood each year for the next four years than having all four roads in repair in one given year," he said.

Based on future projects, Lobdell should prepare himself for a few more years of the double-whammy effect.

The city of Grand Rapids has plans for at least two more projects on or near Division north of Alger next year. MDOT, meanwhile, has a renovation of the Division/28th Street intersection on the horizon — once planned for this summer.

"We've talked to MDOT and know what they're doing as much as possible," said Grand Rapids Senior Project Engineer Bob Borek. "But we have to proceed and they have to proceed. At least they're not doing their intersection project at Division and 28thright now."

The engineer leading the MDOT projects, Eric Kind, said that his organization has taken steps to minimize the business impact.

The $300,000 incentive for contractor C.A. Hall on the 28th Street project is the largest the region has seen for a project of that size.

In addition, an hourly rental fee of $450 per U.S. 131 lane has been placed on the Plaster Creek project, where daily traffic exceeds 100,000 vehicles. On

28th Street, which exceeds 45,000 vehicles, a daily rental fee of $10,000 per lane has been incorporated into the contract.

Kind said that the rental provisions have convinced the contractor to change its schedule already, with new hopes to shut down only one 28th Street lane at any given time.

"We'll be trying to get in and out as soon as possible," Kind said. "It's by far a larger project (than last year's

28th Street
renovation), but I think the provisions have created a sense that you're at least on the same playing field."

Kind added that the impact by MDOT at Breton/28th last summer totaled only eight weeks. The remainder of the disruption was a joint

Breton Road
project at that location by the cities of Grand Rapids and Kentwood

MDOT has hosted a number of forums over the past month to educate local businesses, but retailers are still fearful.

"The Beltline Bar is a destination place, but still one of the busiest restaurants in the area," Lobdell said. "I could ill afford to lose 20 percent of my business there."

Some of the traffic-dependent neighbors to the east — car dealers, gas stations — lost up to 50 percent of revenue last year despite advertising and promotional campaigns.

"It could be a matter of survival for some businesses," said Steve Harkema, Wyoming Downtown Development Authority board member and co-owner of Fruit Basket & Flowerland on

28th Street
. "I don't think very many businesses can survive losing 50 percent of their business in a construction period."

Although the construction runs through Fruit Basket's busiest season, Harkema hopes that patrons will still make the trip, and expects revenue from its other two locations to offset losses.

"These business owners are scared out of their minds," said Wyoming-Kentwood Area Chamber of Commerce President John Crawford. "I keep telling them, some businesses don't make it through road construction projects, some do. You just have to gear up for it and educate your customers."

With that in mind, the DDA is working to develop an advertising and promotional effort in partnership with area businesses, one Crawford hopes will continue after the construction is complete.

Public relations firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson has given the DDA some suggestions. The most popular one involves using the bridge project as a theme, incorporating a bridge-dwelling troll as a mascot. The theme could be expanded to include troll coloring contests and Lego bridge-building contests.

The DDA will be discussing the potential campaign in its meeting tomorrow and in a meeting with the business community on March 10.

The chamber also is offering free space on its Web site to any businesses in the construction zone.

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