ST. GEORGE — Business owners along St. George Boulevard are optimistic that road construction on this main thoroughfare will eventually bring more shoppers into town. They're just hoping they'll be around to enjoy the business.
"There's no doubt it has been painful for some businesses more than others," said Lorri Kocinski-Puchlik, director of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce. "If they were struggling to begin with or had cash flow problems, it's been difficult. It's still painful, even for those with established clientele."
The reconstruction of St. George Boulevard is a nearly $9 million undertaking by the Utah Department of Transportation in cooperation with the city.
The year-long project, which began in July, involves resurfacing the east-west state highway with special asphalt material that looks like concrete and should last up to 30 years in the harsh desert heat of Utah's Dixie. Utility and water lines will be buried, eliminating the decades-old, open irrigation ditches.
The most controversial aspect of the project is a plan to install landscaped, raised medians along several sections, which would limit left-hand turns. In the early planning stages of the project more than two dozen business owners lobbied the city and UDOT against installing the medians, saying their businesses would suffer.
"We fought it and fought it," said Chris Keyes, owner of a McDonald's restaurant on the east end of the boulevard. "In the long run, we think the medians won't benefit the businesses. It's going to be pain from here on out. It'll be interesting to see what happens."
Keyes is one of 15 community block team leaders responsible for making sure each business in his block is aware of construction schedules and possible conflicts. The block teams meet weekly as a group and monthly with the community team leaders.
The idea to appoint teams that work with UDOT, the contractor (who also hired a public relations firm), and St. George officials is a fairly new concept, said Myron Lee, UDOT Region 4 spokesman.
"We tried this approach on the Redwood Road project in Salt Lake County. It helps business owners understand construction and helps contractors understand the businesses," Lee said. "It keeps people informed."
The block teams also grade the contractor on a scale of 1-to-10 in how well he kept people informed, kept access routes open, and how well conflicts were resolved. Good grades mean the contractor, Western Quality Concrete, gets a nice bonus.
Gil Gillespie, a block captain on the west end of the boulevard, said most of the business owners on his block have "a pretty good attitude" about the project.
"When they see how beautiful the boulevard will be with medians, they will be glad we did this," said Gillespie, who owns Dixie Nutrition. "It's not always easy, and there are a couple of stores that might be hurt a little bit, but we've had time to prepare for it."
So far work has progressed on schedule, except for the time when a huge rainstorm dumped water into the trenches, forcing the contractor to wait for it to dry out, Lee said.
"This project has been a long time in the works with a lot of reviews and designs," he said. "Now that it's under way we've had a few hiccups."
Traffic along the boulevard is reduced to one lane going both ways in the four-block construction zone, although access to businesses is open, Lee pointed out. Once construction is completed in a specified zone, normally on a 70-day work schedule, construction moves to another section on the boulevard.
That means business owners share in any grief imposed by the construction schedule. Devoted customers can use alternate routes around the city, such as Tabernacle, 100 South, and Red Hills Parkway, to find back door routes to favorite retailers.
"People are getting through, but there are still a few businesses, the hotels in particular, that have had a drop-off in business," Lee said. "It's like remodeling the kitchen and fixing dinner at the same time. You've just got to do both. We're working diligently to provide access to everyone."
Keyes said so far things are going all right.
"It's as good an experience as possible, I guess," he said. "We're doing OK."
Gillespie is certain the project will benefit everyone once it's completed.
"When they see how beautiful the boulevard will be, they will be glad we did this," he said.