Merchants in the South Governors Avenue area of Dover are losing business due to the ongoing road and utility improvement project, they say. The work, which began this summer, is scheduled to take three years to complete.

    Driving up South Governors Avenue from Webbs Lane in Dover these days usually involves careful maneuvering around cones, potholes, heavy equipment, and the occasional pile of dirt and broken asphalt.

    This stretch of the once heavily traveled thoroughfare is deep in the throes of a three-year road and utility improvement project, but the merchants whose storefronts are closest to the epicenter of the project are worried about more than just dust kicked up by the construction.

    Beginning last summer, construction work closed South Governors Avenue at the bridge over Puncheon Run, which effectively cut off the businesses in that half-mile section of the road from any daily traffic.

    For business owners who depend on that traffic to produce customers, and whose existing customers are kept away by the condition of the road, times have been tough.

    Erlene George owns Cook and Smith Florists, one block south of the closed bridge, and said her business is suffering because of the project.

    “We’re down over 50%,” she said. “Because a lot of people going to work in the morning would stop, and then after hours on their way home they would stop.”

    Even though the Delaware Department of Transportation placed signs at the Webbs Lane intersection indicating that George’s and other businesses on the stretch still are open, the active work zone has made potential customers wary of driving up the street.

    “We have customers who call and ask us if the construction is still in front of us because they don’t want to have to drive here if it is,” she said. “We’ve been trying to do extra advertising to promote the business and announce that we are open.”

    George said that in addition to offering special discounts and coupons to drive business, she has cut her store’s hours and reduced staff.

    Steve Wrede, owner of All Seasons Nursery and Garden Center, one block away from George, also has been forced to cut staff and tighten his budget.

    Wrede has tried to increase his advertising, but it hasn’t had a significant effect.

    He’s running out of options, he said.

    “It’s kind of tough for us to throw more advertising money into it, because you’re not necessarily going to convince people,” Wrede said. “They know where we are and if they need something, and they’re willing to fight the battle of the construction and the rough roads, then they’re going to do it.

    “Reminding them constantly that you’re open is not necessarily going to make them more inclined to get their four-wheelers out and slog through the mud and the potholes and the ditches across the road to do that.”

    Residents and businesses north of the bridge haven’t yet seen construction as heavy as what’s occurring on the south side, but eventually the project will expand all the way to Water Street.

    Art Geary, president of Halpern Eye Associates at the corner of South Governors and Wyoming avenues, said he’s very concerned about the impact construction will have on parking at his business.

    “The folks south of the bridge are in a unique situation because they’re cut off, so its been much more difficult for them. I don’t anticipate the same level of difficulty, but certainly with the road torn up for periods of time it may make people less willing to go down Governors Avenue,” he said. “We’re working right now to accelerate the opening of a new office in West Dover so that we have an alternative for the patients that may not want to come down Governors Avenue.”

    Wrede and George have their fingers crossed for the new bridge to open soon. George wants traffic flowing in time for Mother’s Day, Saturday, May 10. Wrede just hopes he can salvage a decent spring after the bridge opens.

    DelDOT says the bridge isn’t likely to be completed until “late spring/early summer,” according to a progress update provided by spokeswoman Dawn Hopkins. After that, work is scheduled to continue through summer 2010 as the construction works its way north to Water Street.

    That timetable doesn’t suit Wrede, who said that, aside from the loss of traffic, he’s had to deal with what he called a lack of sympathy from the project’s primary contractor, New Castle County-based Daisy Construction Company.

    “I really don’t have anything ill to say of DelDOT and the persons responsible for this project. The construction company is quite a different issue,” he said. “They have a genuine lack of concern, in my eyes, as to how their work can and does affect businesses.”

    Wrede said that Daisy could be more sensitive to the business owners’ plight in its day-to-day operations.

    “My issue with them has been those little things that people see. A dump truck, albeit parked on state right of way or easement where they’re certainly allowed to park, with no concern as to the perception that a person, a customer, may have to get into your business with a 10-foot opening. People may be intimidated or scared to attempt to get in and out of somewhere like that,” he said. “Sometimes they have flaggers to wave people in and out, sometimes they don’t.”

    Each month DelDOT convenes a meeting of the South Governors Avenue Construction Working Group, which includes staff from Daisy and DelDOT, as well as impacted merchants like Wrede and George.

    At these meetings project staff can present updates on the construction and resolve issues with community members affected by the work.

    George said she’s tried to go through the proper channels to communicate her needs as a business owner to the contractors, but that her concerns have fallen on deaf ears in the past.

    “I attend the meeting every month and I had asked Daisy construction if they could not be working in front of our business during the week of Valentine’s and they were out there Monday [Feb. 9],” she said.

    After a call to DelDOT, work in front of George’s shop was shut down for the remainder of the week, but she said such instances of apparent oversight on Daisy’s part are not uncommon.

    “They don’t have the same concerns, they’re not a local organization,” she said.

    Telephone messages left for Daisy staff at their corporate offices were not immediately returned.

    Wrede said he’s disappointed that DelDOT didn’t prepare him and other merchants for what might happen to their businesses when construction began.

    “They tell you that you’ve got to prepare for constriction in front of your business and maybe delays and things like that,” he said. “But they don’t mention you’re probably not going to do as much business while this is going on, they don’t even touch that.”

    But in a written response provided by Hopkins, DelDOT said it will use what it has learned from Wrede and others to better prepare and assist business owners impacted by similar projects in the future.

    “We see this project as an opportunity to learn how to work with merchants and residents in the future, reducing economic impacts as much as possible,” the statement read. “While we legally cannot compensate for loss of revenue as the result of a construction project, we can reach out to other agencies and partners within the community to become a facilitator in bringing organizations together that can help.

    “As a result of this project, we learned that we can do better — better at preparing a business owner for the impacts construction work brings,” the statement continued. “As we work to improve in this area, we will begin developing a brochure (based on some of our experiences on S. Governors Avenue) that is a type of guide for businesses on ‘How to Survive a Construction Project.’”

    In the meantime, Wrede said he will do what he can to stay in business.

    “We just hope that our loyal customers will continue to use us and bear with the construction,” he said. “We know from going to the meetings and talking to the city officials and the county officials and the state officials and the construction company that they’re going to progress as planned and as weather permits, and there’s really not a whole lot that can be done otherwise.”

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