Matthew Shepherd was forced to watch as his chocolate shop lost several thousand dollars in sales and three part-time employees this summer during sidewalk construction on South Churton Street.
While the summer months are typically slow for Matthew’s Chocolates, Shepherd said this year was especially tough and most of the trouble could have been avoided with more cooperation between town officials and downtown business owners.
“My main beef with this is they had a grant to do it, they could have done it at night, and they chose not to,” he said. “Now, it will be nice once we’ve got our little fences up. Families stayed out there three or four hours the other day. It was nice to see that.”
The nearly yearlong project started in April and is replacing old sidewalks with wider ones that allow for outdoor seating, tables and street trees, while leaving pedestrians a clear, four- to six-foot path. The Town Board approved new rules Monday for permitting outdoor seating and displaying merchandise on sidewalks.
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Crews also have been constructing bus stops, installing audible pedestrian crossing signals, replacing street gutters and curbs, and making corner ramps accessible for people with disabilities. While they lost a dozen on-street parking spaces to the projects, leaving three spaces on each block, Stephanie Trueblood, the town’s public space manager, said the losses were offset by 13 new off-street spaces the town got when a Bank of America branch closed.
The town used more than $500,000 in state and federal funding to pay for the joint project with the N.C. Department of Transportation. Crews worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week, construction officials said; working at night would have cost the town extra money.
But even with a six-week delay due to rain, Trueblood said the work is ahead of schedule and could be finished by November. The town has one more project scheduled for next year – installing brick pavers in the crosswalks around the same time that the N.C. Department of Transportation will repave the streets.
The work was needed, Shepherd said, but he doesn’t think anyone cared whether businesses survived. The town’s monthly Last Friday events usually bring in a lot of people, for instance, but the street corners remained closed and construction signs made it hard for pedestrians to navigate the orange fencing and barrels, he said.
He asked about hanging temporary signs and balloons to attract shoppers, but was rebuffed, Shepherd said. They should have respected the businesses enough to do that, he said.
The town did post a highway sign at the Churton Street and U.S. 70 intersection encouraging citizens to patronize downtown businesses. Smaller posters staked downtown were difficult to read because they folded over time.
Several business owners, concerned about “small-town politics,” hesitated to talk publicly about their financial hit and what they said was limited town help.
Jane Vacchiano, co-owner of 108 Churton boutique, said the town appeared to learn from mistakes during the first phase of work on Shepherd’s block. She also credited Trueblood for her weekly updates. The store held a buy one-get one free event in August to boost their sales as construction started outside, she said.
“I think it worked for us, and we’ve tried to stay really optimistic, because when it’s done, it’ll look really nice,” Vacchiano said. “I do know that I’ve heard other people comment, especially when that walk was being done, that a lot of people felt like their businesses were greatly impacted by it.”
Panciuto owner Aaron Vandemark also credited Trueblood for managing the project. The restaurant’s loyal locals and out-of-town customers largely shielded them from the effects that retail stores experienced, he said.
They haven’t committed to using the new sidewalk space yet, he said, but they’re thinking about it.
“Whatever we do out here will be an asset, hopefully for the restaurant, but also for the community. For all I know, it could just be public seating to sit down and eat your ice cream and hang out,” Vandemark said.
Everyone agreed it was a relief to see the work nearing an end and customers returning. The town knows it’s been tough on downtown businesses, and they’re trying to wrap up in time for the holidays, Trueblood said. “You could just feel the anxiety,” Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens added, while noting that feeling is being replaced with excitement about the results.
“When the street gets repaved and everything looks really, really sweet, it’s going to be really beautiful,” Stevens said. “But I think this fall and during the Christmas season, it’s going to be just lovely because the construction will be done.”
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