It seemed like such an innocuous proposal that last month that the Utah Transportation Commission voted unanimously and without debate to fund more than $100,000 to build a concrete island down the middle of Redwood Road between 54th and 56th South.
Heavy traffic and increasing safety concerns were cited as the reasons for the project.Friday, the Transportation Commission backed off on its earlier decision when Taylorsville businessmen and legislators swarmed the commission meeting to protest the action. Some business owners say the divider would cut their sales by as much as 50 percent, forcing most out of business.
"It will break our company," said Terry Harmon, owner of the Harmon's supermarket on the corner of 54th South and Redwood Road. "If I had known then what I know now, I would not have invested $7 million in that property."
"It's the small businesses that get hurt the worst," said Randy Barton, owner of the Sconecutter fast food outlet. "If we had known about the concrete divider, I don't think we would have ever located there."
They and other business owners called upon the Transportation Commission to delay the decision long enough for businesses to work with the Department of Transportation to come up with acceptable alternatives to a concrete divider.
All of the businesses complained they knew nothing about the UDOT proposal and had no opportunity to protest the plan or offer alternatives.
Under the UDOT plan, a traffic signal would have been installed at 56th South and Redwood Road that would allow northbound traffic to turn into the shopping area. But Redwood Road access to businesses on the northeast corner of the development - Harmon's, Zions Bank and an emergency medical center, among others - would have been cut off.
Currently, a center turn lane enables traffic to patronize the businesses along Redwood Road.
The department's proposal called for those business customers to instead work their way through a maze of back roads and then back to the businesses.
"A fast-food business is exactly that - fast," said Barton. "People just won't come if they have to do that."
Harmon agreed, saying customers shop at Harmon's because of its convenience. If it is inconvenient to shop there, the customers will simply go elsewhere.
Harmon's claims were echoed by Jim Olsen of the Utah Retail Grocers Association, who said studies confirm that convenience is the number one reason shoppers choose a grocery store.
"We talk a lot about economic development in this state, but this is not economic development," Olsen said. "This is hitting the people who are already there."
Olsen said even a 10 percent drop in customers would put Harmon's out of business. "That's a conservative estimate," he said. "Maybe 25 to 30 percent (loss) is more realistic."
That loss could prove several times more costly than the actual construction project. For example, if Harmon's were to go under, it would cost the state $1.3 million annually in lost sales tax revenue, as well as income taxes on a $16 million payroll.
"We need maybe a year's time to study this and come up with a solution," cautioned Sen. Steve Rees, R-Salt Lake.
Attorneys for the owner of the Family Center properties in the shopping area spoke in favor of the construction project, saying the project was "based on very sound engineering principles."
UDOT cited safety reasons for proposing the concrete divider on the high-volume road. Another major development is planned for the east side of Redwood Road, which would result in southbound traffic using the turning lane to turn east. It would be hazardous to have two directions of traffic using the same turn lane to cross two other lanes of busy traffic.