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Businesses Struggle as Rt. 30 Construction Continues

Potential customers are avoiding the roadwork along the highway, leaving local shops and restaurants in a financial lurch.

Since its outset in late 2010, the U.S. Route 30 widening project that runs from Harlem Avenue in to William Street in New Lenox has been billed as a boon for residents. The project, which turns the 8.5-mile stretch of road into a four-lane highway, will eliminate traffic problems and be an overall benefit to residents.

But no one mentioned the toll the construction would take on businesses up and down Rt. 30, especially in the unincorporated area just west of Harlem. That part of the work zone is dotted with tiny strip malls that have been adversely affected by the heavy construction being done.

READ: Keep Up With the Construction's Progress in Our Rt. 30 Section

As delays push the road work into its second summer, the owners of these Rt. 30 businesses continue to struggle financially, and some of them wonder if they'll even be around to see the construction finally complete.

"All of my customers are saying it'll be so beneficial," said Mary Bandera, owner of . "But I've probably lost half my business because of this."

Bandera doesn't hold back when she talks about the project that has drastically limited access to her small cafe that's been open since the early 1990s. Depending on the traffic patterns, customers can face a few challenges trying to pull into the side road to get to Caffé Milan.

"Grueling bull----. Can I call it that?" she said, adding that the construction has crippled any chance of cultivating new customers who now are using alternative routes to circumvent the roadwork. "It's destroying my walk-in business. … Last year, it was terrible. One of the worst years in nine years."

Bandera's saving grace has been her thriving catering business, which hits its busy season in the summer when she supplies food for weddings and graduation. She's also tried to offset the construction complications by placing signs in front of her restaurant, telling customers that she's still open.

And Bandera knows she's not alone in this struggle. She's spoken with the other nearby business owners and heard similar tales.

READ:

Lisa Sulmac, owner of , said her business has gone down 50 percent since construction started. Although she said the community has been supportive, Sulmac has had customers tell her that they're completely avoiding Rt. 30 so they don't have to deal with the aggravation of the construction traffic.

Like Bandera, Sulmac is trying to find ways to mitigate the financial damage to her business. She's been advertising more and putting together more special deals and discounts than she has in the past.

"It's pretty frustrating," Sulmac said. "It's been going on for a while. We're just waiting for it to finish."

Frustration, though, doesn't even begin to describe what Dennis Ash is feeling. Ash, along with his wife, Diane, owns a tattoo shop, , and adjoining liquor store, , along Rt. 30. To say Ash has strong opinions on the widening project is like saying … well, like saying that Rt. 30 construction is a slight inconvenience.

"These guys didn't come to talk to the businesses," he said concerning the Illinois Department of Transportation, which oversees the project. "There was no consideration for what the business owners needed. Small businesses are the backbone of the [community]. Where's our consideration? They don't care."

Ash said he has even had a few run-ins with the work crews during the project, telling contractors to move their equipment when they were blocking his entrance. In fact, he said he chased the foreman from Harlem Avenue to LaGrange Road in order to get a semi-truck out of his parking lot.

READ:

Guy Tridgell, a spokesman for IDOT, said he understands Ash's concerns and difficulties, and his agency has tried to stay in contact with businesses throughout the entire project through meetings and e-mails.

"We certainly understand construction can be a hardship," he said. "We try to keep access open and keep communication open … on the project. The longterm gain will outweight the short-term issues. … We make every effort to reach out to all the impacted businesses to let them know what's going on."

"When the roadway is complete it will be safer for their customers to navigate," Tridgell added. "It was a two-lane road with very few opportunities to turn into those businesses, and this project will remedy that."

Although the construction has had a small effect on the business at his tattoo shop, it's the liquor store that's taking the brunt of the construction downturn, Ash said. Liquor stores and outlets that sell alcohol are fairly common, so customers can easily find a convenient alternative, he said, adding that they'll even pay an extra 50 cents for that convenience.

"You know what happens to a business like that when people are inconvenienced?" Ash asked. "I'll give you one guess. They go out of business."

READ:

And that's just what he thinks some people in the community would like to see happen to the restaurants and shops in the unincorporated area of Rt. 30. Ash said he could envision that stretch of road turning into something Will County and village officials would be happier about, like a stretch of car dealerships.

Ash has had his two stores on Rt. 30 for about 17 years (the liquor store was a billiard hall until about five years ago), and he plans on weathering this construction.

"I hope I see an increase in business when it's all said and done," he said.

IDOT officials still say Rt. 30 construction will be finished by the end of this year, with some minor work being completed in 2013. Originally, the project was to be finished by this summer, but work delays have been caused by unforeseen difficulties, particularly when with the utilities in the area.

"It's not an unusual problem," Tridgell said. "We're changing the footprint of the road, and the utility lines need to be moved out of the existing right of way. It can be time-consuming. But once completed the remainder of construction unfolds fairly rapidly."

Ash, however, doesn't share IDOT's optimism concerning the project's completion. Formerly in construction himself, Ash said the work could continue for some time to come.

"Mark my words, the rate this thing is going? It's not even close [to being finished]," he said. "I've worked construction 22 years, done roads and bridges now and then. This is the worst I've ever seen a project managed. It's asinine."

 

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Joe Vince July 17, 2012 at 03:35 PM
@Patty McWilliams: The businesses that seem to be struggling the most are those in the unincorporated area, so they don't fall under the village. That makes it tough for them because village officials can't work as a go-between for them with IDOT. These businesses are out on their own in a sense. Joe Vince Local Editor, Frankfort
Dan July 17, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Normally---the weather causes delays. The past 2 years have been and continue to be exceptional for road work and the project should be or have been finished early because of this. I for one do not buy the moving of utilities is the problem and causing delays. It would be interesting to see the service contracts to see if there is a penalty payment clause if the work is not completed on time. If so this penality money should be given to the business owners. Something else is driving the probem---maybe lack of funds to pay for the project are not timely or incompetent project management. Whatever the reason or excuse causing the delays the New Lenox, Mokena and Frankfort infrastructure managment should be or have been all over this to protect the interest of the small business taxpayers.
Joe Vince July 17, 2012 at 04:10 PM
@Dan: Good comments. The utility issues have been significant, particularly water and sewer system problems. I know they had to replace a sewer drain along Cedar Lane—something that was unplanned—and that project kept running into snafus that held up the construction along that section of Rt. 30. And earlier this year, a contractor broke a water main near Hunter Woods Estates. Funding hasn't been a problem. The money to pay for the construction was set aside before it even started. This project has been years in the planning. That leaves only one remaining possibility among those that you suggested. Make of that what you will. Another issue is that because this is a state project it takes away much of the local control in how it gets done. That's not a small thing. I think local government is better aware of their community and its needs then a state agency. Joe Vince Local Editor, Frankfort
Mike July 17, 2012 at 05:00 PM
AT&T originally stated that they have enough excess of line along 30 to accommodate the new construction, so they did not plan on AT&T having to do much work in this project. When it came to that point in the process, they found out that AT&T was way off, and they had to run all new lines along Route 30. I'm sure this isn't the only delay, but it was a pretty lengthy one.
Tim Wilson July 17, 2012 at 07:35 PM
So, this is the first time IDOT and the utilities built a road ? Isn't there a manual somewhere? If only there was a way to do this construction in stages ... Maybe there could be incentives for finishing early or penalties for going over-budget and over-schedule. Luckily it's the fantasy world of Illinois govt, where the real-world business rules apply not.

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