CHATHAM – For Dan Meservey and other West Chatham business owners, it's deja vu all over again.
A decade ago, businesses struggled through several seasons as sewers were installed along Route 28, limiting and sometimes shutting down access completely. Last week, major construction began on the West Chatham Roadway Project, and although the road is ostensibly open to traffic, long delays and the torn-up surface is causing many people to avoid the area.
“Ten years and we're back at it again,” said Meservey, whose family owns two businesses in the corridor between Barn Hill Road and George Ryder Road. Coming on top of the pandemic, “it's a double whammy,” he said.
And it is going to continue for several months. The $4-plus million project involves building roundabouts at the Barn Hill Road and George Ryder Road intersections and eliminating the center turning lane in between. The new two-lane road through the business district will feature new sidewalks and bike lanes as well as landscape improvements, all designed to improve safety and upgrade the appearance of the stretch of roadway. The work will continue through the fall, until weather forces it to shut down, and into the spring and following fall, with a break between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The businesses are definitely taking a hit, and while some owners say the final product will be worth the pain, others are more skeptical.
“I'm all for making it look nice down here,” said Jay Case, owner of Larry's PX. “If we can make it through the whole thing, I'm sure it will be OK.” But even in just the first week of construction, business is off. “This is the part I didn't ever want to see.”
Owners say they were disappointed in the initial signage provided by the town, which didn't indicate that businesses were open and accessible. That's changed, said Public Works Director Tom Temple. Message boards at both ends of the work area announcing that businesses were open were added Friday. Business owners also said they were promised that two-lane traffic would be maintained, but last week a single lane was open with alternating travel. Case said he had a 10- to 15-minute wait to get to work because of backed-up traffic.
“If that's the case, people are just going to go around and not come here at all,” he said.
The direction from selectmen was to maintain two lanes of traffic, Temple said; both lanes have access to all of the businesses along the corridor, but a single lane of alternating traffic will be necessary at times due to the extensive amount of construction required. Pavement along the corridor was removed last week and contractor Lawrence Lynch is concentrating on creating the footprint for the roundabout at the George Ryder Road intersection, he said. That involved extensive excavation and regrading in order to create the proper base for the new roadway. A full-depth road reconstruction is being done along the entire corridor.
The basic footprint of the George Ryder Road roundabout is scheduled to be completed by the end of the week, weather permitting, after which the footprint of the Barn Hill Road roundabout will be done, Temple said.
“The game plan is to get the footprint in place for both roundabouts and start the curbing” before winter weather sets in and asphalt plants close, he said. Ultimately, three layers of pavement will be required. The final paving, lighting installation, sidewalks and landscaping should be done in the spring, with completion set for the fall; that could stretch into spring 2022 depending on weather, or be finished sooner if the winter is mild, Temple said.
The project has been in the works for a decade and faced opposition from West Chatham residents and businesses. But the state-funded road reconstruction had the backing of the selectmen, who saw it as a way to enhance the safety of the stretch, the only one along Route 28 with a center turning lane. Significant delays occurred last year when gas mains were installed at the wrong depth and had to be dug up and replaced. Temple said a subcontractor of National Grid buried the new lines based on the existing road level, not the new level stated on the plans. There were further delays this spring due to the pandemic. Between the gas line mixup and the pandemic, there was a delay of roughly 416 days, he said.
The project began badly for Meservey last Monday, when all access to the family's Shell station at the corner of Route 28 and George Ryder Road was closed off. “We couldn't even get into our own gas station,” he said. Access was eventually opened up, but there was also a water main break on George Ryder Road that put the station's car wash out of commission.
The work has also killed the lunch business that the family's West Chatham Grill relies on. It's closed for at least the next two weeks, Meservey said. “We can't survive and pay our people and do no business,” he said. Many of the landscapers and others regulars who get coffee at the Shell station each morning have said they won't be doing so during the construction because of the delays and the wear and tear caused by the unpaved road surface. “We're sitting here trying to figure out what to do. Our options are limited.”
“People don't want to travel through here,” said Case, whose restaurant serves breakfast and lunch. “We already reinvented our business twice this year. I didn't think we'd eve survive the beginning of the COVID thing, but we'll keep kicking, scratching and biting our way through.”
The work has “pretty much wiped out the lunch business altogether,” said Kreme N' Kone owner Scott Eurenius. One day last week he had five customers between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and they parked elsewhere and walked to the restaurant. His sales are down by half “easily,” he said, and he's considering opening just Thursdays through Sundays until his usual November closing time.
“If it stays like this next spring, I don't know if I would even bother opening for lunch,” he said.
Chatham Furniture owner Walter Kane said he was disappointed with the communication from the town. Last spring selectmen gave the OK for work to be done after Labor Day, which for him is a busy time of year. Schedules haven't been updated and selectmen haven't provided the promised liaison to the businesses, he said. Right now he's open weekends only.
“There are barrels blocking my driveway,” he said in a telephone interview Saturday, “which I'm about to move.”
Chatham Merchants Association President Susan Dimm's pottery shop is off Barn Hill Road, and getting there takes patience. For her, October is a slow month, but she said she understands the difficulty some of the businesses along the corridor are being put in, and added that the merchants and the chamber of commerce are working on an ad campaign to inform the public that businesses are still open, despite construction.
“This is the price we pay for being a seasonal community that has to schedule all our roadwork around the holidays, tourists and when the asphalt plans close,” she said while stuck in traffic returning to her shop. While the work will undoubtedly hurt some businesses, she said it the final outcome will be a safer road where vehicles travel more slowly than they did.
“Nobody can see your sign if they're whipping by at 50 miles per hour,” she said. “But if they're going 30, they can. It's going to be much better than what we have now.”
Julie Dykens of Local Color Gallery agreed. “We all knew it was coming,” she said. Road crews have been accommodating and helpful to the businesses. “They seem to keep access open to at least one entryway to my gallery,” she said.
“I can't imagine it won't be improved,” she said of the finished work.
Case isn't sure safety was as big a concern as some thought. He agrees the corridor needed visual upgrading, but in his 27 years at Larry's PX he said he saw few accidents. He feels two-lane road and roundabouts located so close together will cause traffic backups such as those seen in the summer at The Cornfield. “It's got to hurt business,” he said.
Meservey long opposed the project but had more or less become resigned to it, but he said he doesn't think it will improve things for West Chatham businesses. There are five restaurants on the south side of Route 28 in the corridor, and while it will it will probably look good in the end, removing the center turning lane “is going to be tough,” he said, “if it ever gets done.”
“I'm glad to see it happening and getting done,” said Kane. “I hope we all make it through the year.”