CHESTER — While bids are due on March 2 for the downtown area of the Main Street Project, delays have contributed an uncertain construction schedule that has left business owners and residents unable to plan ahead for spring and summer.
“Our merchants and property owners downtown are very nervous, understandably so. This is going to be a major disruption in the streetscape — sidewalks, drainage, paving, street — it’s a big project and it’s right in the heart of our village so they are looking for knowledge of exactly what is going to happen and we can’t give them that yet because we don’t have a contractor and a schedule,” said First Selectman Lauren Gister at her office Thursday. “Until we have a contractor and we can negotiate a contract, there’s a lot of maybes out there and everybody is nervous.”
Gister said the original plan had been to start in March, but delays on the state level have prolonged the process.
“We were hoping to be started in a couple of weeks and we’re behind on that because honestly the DOT took 13 weeks to approve all the paperwork and we were hoping for two weeks and we gave them six weeks and they took 13. That one really hurt,” said Gister, who estimated the project cost at about $2.3 million not including about $300,000 in engineering and design fees covered by the town.
Phase three of the project encompasses Main Street from the “village side” of the bridge at Route 148 to Maple Street, including improvements to Spring Street and Maple where they connect to Main Street. The work will include new curbing, sidewalks and catch basins. The town approved the masterplan for the project in July 2013.
Gister said the project has seven phases and some have been completed out of order, such as the Main Street Bridge, which was replaced by the state in 2014-2015.
The town will resurface the Maple Street parking lot and improve its lighting in anticipation of the need for parking during downtown construction and repaving.
“This is being done by necessity. We’re going to be pushing people to these outer parking lots because there won’t be as much parking downtown so we want these parking lots to be in good shape,” she said. “So even though it really is part of a future phase of main street, we’re doing part of it to make sure that we make it as easy for the merchants and their customers as possible.”
Still open for business
“I’m always a firm believer that you build the town and you don’t have to build your own store. If you keep the town vibrant, they’ll find you,” said Suzie Woodward, owner of Lark, at 4 Water St., and facilitator for the merchant’s group in Chester, on Friday.
Woodward said she was concerned about the impacts of timing, the lack of certainty and the delays. She said it was important for customers to realize shops will be open during the construction months.
“Our job is to help people realize that we’re going to be open for business and we need them more than ever during this time because we are small businesses who depend on consistency,” said Woodward.
Chester has built a following through its Sunday farmer’s market, First Fridays and other activities, said Laurie McGinley, owner of The French Hen at 14 Main Street.
“Chester is a destination and we just want that to continue. People come for the afternoon. They come for a meal, they come to walk around, they come to experience the energy of Chester,” she said.
But recapturing a customer base that may have taken years to build could be difficult, she said. After three and a half years in Chester, McGinley said the anticipation of construction helped seal her decision to close her store at the end of March and retire from the retail business.
“That was kind of rolling around in my mind, after being in it for almost 17 years and then knowing that the project was proposed, it made my decision pretty easy, “she said. “The word is it will be absolutely beautiful when it’s done, but how do you continue during those months where we don’t know what it will be. There are just so many question marks.”
Gister said the town had appropriated several thousand dollars toward marketing to help downtown businesses during construction on Main Street, including hiring a designer to create a recognizable logo.
“Originally we were calling it ‘merchant survivability’ but I’m sort of calling it ‘downtown vitality’. It’s how to keep that vitality and vibrancy going during this project. Part of that is what we’re doing for marketing to let people know the town is still open, what kind of signage should be up so people know where to go, where to park, how to access businesses,” she said.
Main Street history
The town purchased the stretch of Main Street from the village side of the Main Street Bridge to the intersection of Middlesex Ave. (Route 154) for $1 from the state on an undetermined date, according to the town website.
In the 1980s, the Main Street Committee was formed to review and make recommendations concerning the condition of the road surface and the sidewalks as well as the utilities under the road. When it was a state road, Main Street was “continually overlaid with paving material” which resulted in “some portions of the pavement [exceeding] the height of the curb reveal, [creating] significant drainage problems, according to the town website. Beneath the pavement exists aging and abandoned infrastructure that includes, but is not limited to, water mains, trolley tracks, sewer lines, water lines, storm water drainage, and possible electric service.”
On February 16, 2012, the Main Street Committee, which reports to the Board of Selectmen, began to meet again. In June 2013, the committee completed the Chester Village and Center District Master Plan, which was adopted at the July 23, 2013 Town Meeting. Phase one of the project included 1,800 feet of roadway from Laurel Hill Cemetery to Middlesex Avenue and was completed in Spring 2015.
There has been some talk of delaying the project until next year, but doing so would likely create more problems than it would solve, Gister said.
“That is very problematic because it’s a state-funded project and it took a very long time for them to look at all of our numbers and all of our designs. We had to go back and forth several times before they approved the project so that we could go out to bid. If we wait a year we’re going to start that all over again with new cost estimates, and it will be more expensive and there’s no guarantee that we won’t still be stuck in a weird timing thing again,” she said.
At this point, further delays could come from the state or from contractors, she said.
“The town will receive the proposals but the timing depends on whether the contractors can start right away,” she said. “If we get contractors that say we can’t start until June then we have to sit back and rethink and figure out what the right thing to do is.”
One option could be to start in September so that the merchants can depend on selling through the summer, she said.
“I don’t know what the answer is going to be but we will certainly have to have a more detailed discussion of contingencies and alternatives if that happens. I don’t expect that, it’s not a surprise to these big contractors, they know this is coming,” she said.
Gister said she was concerned for the merchants, property owners and residents and hoped the results of the construction would be worth the disruption.
“I think in the long run we’re going to look back on this and look around downtown and think, wow, I’m so glad we did this and now it’s over and we don’t have to do this for many, many decades,” she said.