ELKHART — Two major construction projects less than a mile away are hindering traffic and leaving some Elkhart businesses struggling for sales.
In the heart of the downtown, the upcoming construction of a huge underground sewer storage tank has resulted in traffic restrictions on Waterfall Drive and part of Lexington Avenue, and it eliminated a large parking lot across the street from the Daily Grind coffee shop.
A few blocks to the south, construction is under way for a future railroad overpass on Prairie Street. But preliminary work involving underground utilities has closed traffic around the intersection of Main and Prairie streets.
Meanwhile, railroad crossing construction just to the north of the Middlebury Street crossing has left it difficult to traverse more than half a mile of South Main Street.
Work on the overpass and underground tank will continue through most of 2015. The railroad work appears to be a short-term project but it’s not clear when it will reopen. A call to Norfolk Southern Railroad Friday was not returned.
With memories still fresh about the problems the streetscape project had on Main Street traffic a few years ago, downtown businesses were worried about the upcoming project earlier this year.
Streetscape was an on-going street enhancement project on South Main through the business district that extended over several years and left traffic snarled each summer.
This year, with the tank project approaching, merchants had a unified voice via Downtown Elkhart Inc., and representatives of SoMa, the downtown revitalization group.
Meetings were held. Concerns voiced. And the city responded with a series of steps aimed at alleviating problems. A temporary parking lot was established at the corner or West Jackson Boulevard and North Second Street and additional temporary angled parking was created along part of Waterfall and nearby High Street.
More temporary angled parking will be added in the 100 block of Lexington when road work is completed in a few weeks, according to city engineer Mike Machlan.
At that point, traffic will remain east-bound only until the project is complete, he said.
Two weeks into the project, it appears those efforts have made a difference.
At the Daily Grind coffee shop, sales are still good for the morning crowd, but the lunch crowd is thinner and the store has had to send workers home early on several occasions, said store manager Taylor Feick
“It’s a lot better than what we expected,” Feick said. “It’s just really confusing to us and our customers on how to get in here because they change it every day, but they’ve been working with us with signs and keeping the parking lot open.”
“I hope this is the worst of it,” she added.
Councilman Dave Osborne, who owns property along that part of Lexington, said he’s pleased so far, especially when comparing it to the streetscape.
He said he appreciated plans to tunnel under a new sidewalk for utility work instead of tearing it up.
“A lot of people were up in arms and afraid everything was gonna be so bad and I think it’s working out so far,” Osborne said. “For the most part, people understand this is something that has to be done.”
SOUTH MAIN STREET
South of the tracks, it’s a more complicated scenario with a more severe impact for some stores.
Replacing utilities under Main Street on both sides of Prairie has resulted in the entire width of the road being removed. Stores north of that work area are hampered by the railroad crossing being closed. Combined, it’s created more than half a mile of roadway that is closed or partially closed to motorists.
Main Street is expected to reopen by early December.
That affected stretch includes two longtime auto-related repair shops plus other businesses that are spread among vacant store fronts and numerous old houses cut up into apartments.
The impact on businesses along South Main varies depending on the type and location, owners said.
Dan Martin, manager of Elkhart Starter and Alternator Exchange, said his business is doing well despite the street closing.
Unlike some stores, he doesn’t rely on “drive-by” customers like a convenience store would.
His customers can get to the store by using Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, he said.
“I keep plenty busy. I have plenty of work,” he said.
Victor Torres, owner of DMR The Ultimate Body Shop, located just south of the tracks, offered a similar assessment.
Torres said he’s had to give customers directions to the store and that the delivery of some parts has been delayed because drivers couldn’t figure out how to get to the store. But otherwise, business is OK, he said.
Other stores, including a new one, are struggling.
Surprise in a Balloon, opened up a week ago and sells floral decorations, balloons and other gifts.
Business, so far, is “not so well,” said Maria Valdes, who co-owns the store with her mother.
“There’s no people around,” she said.
Valdes said they knew construction was scheduled but were attracted to the location because of the inexpensive rent.
“Any business is going to be slow in the first month and we know that,” she said.
At the Faith Mission Thrift Store, regular customers have been able to access the store, but there is concern about those wanting to donate items, said Ross Swihart, director of the Faith Mission.
As a result, the agency is encouraging people to drop off items at the nearby mission instead of the store.
“We’re holding up, but it would be good if the railroad tracks weren’t closed at the same time,” Swihart said.