Chester Main Street (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Embattled by Coronavirus Closures, Chester Merchants Fear Added Impact of Main Street Construction

CHESTER — After weeks of delays and uncertainty, construction on the Main Street Project is scheduled to begin April 20. The timing of the project, originally planned to begin March 1, was concerning to many downtown merchants who feared that it would dampen business during the high season, from late spring to early fall.

Now, with many businesses temporarily closed or curtailed by measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and with no clear time frame for reopening, the disruption of major street construction in the downtown shopping district has Chester merchants more concerned than ever.

“Substantial completion” of construction is expected 110 days from the start date, according to First Selectman Lauren Gister, who spoke by phone on April 8 and 9. 

“We’re really talking about three months,” said Gister. “What we’re hoping is by the end of June, early July, that it’s substantially complete and then it’s just the aesthetic pieces — benches, plantings, guardrails — that need to be continued.”

Gister said the $2.2 million project will begin with drainage work at the intersection of Maple and Main streets. She said the partial overlapping of the work schedule with the timing of town’s coronavirus-related business closures represented a slightly lower impact to merchants. 

“It’s not going to close the road. It’s going to be alternating traffic going back and forth but that’s going to be sort of a chokepoint and that’s where they’re going to start, so if we don’t have a lot of business going on downtown during the time they’re doing that, it’s actually better,” she said. “I hate the fact that a lot of the businesses are not open, but on the other hand this won’t hurt them worse because we can’t reopen the businesses and then start construction — that does not work.” 

However, Everett Reid, co-owner of Hot French Chix, a restaurant at 59 Main St., said the timing of the construction will extend the time frame when merchants cannot conduct business. 

“It’s unconscionable,” Reid said by phone on April 9. “We’re closed down for the pandemic and now she’s going to further close us down.” 

Reid said the town’s estimates of the construction have vacillated between three months and six months or more.  He said he would prefer the town delay the construction until businesses can recover from the mandated COVID-19 closures. 

“It seems it’s lacking any thoughts or concerns of sensitivities of the merchants here,” he said. “Another scenario is you might see dramatic change in the merchants and the character of downtown. There are a lot of very talented merchants that they’re fortunate to have here and they really don’t recognize that. I don’t think there’s any thought to that at all that these merchants might not survive. You don’t change the whole character of town and put the merchants in jeopardy, it’s just senseless and irresponsible.’ 

Customers will only put up with a certain amount of inconvenience, said Reid. 

“We have a really great core of local customers that are really supportive, but the reality is I can’t expect them to go through great inconveniences to come here to get takeout food and that’s what it’s really going to come down to,” he said. “They’re not even addressing what the alternatives are, perhaps they could be explored. To not consider other alternatives, is callousness.”

Project parameters

In 2013, the town approved the Chester Village and Center District Master Plan, which had seven phases. Phase three includes infrastructure improvements from Maple Street to the bridge at Route 148, which was replaced by the state in 2014-15. 

The town received four bids for phase three, with Colonna Concrete & Asphalt Paving, the low bidder.

The state declined to fund a portion of the work, which will be paid for from the Main Street Project capital budget, Gister said. 

“We had to go back to the state when we got the bids and they analyzed the different pieces of the project and whether it was on a feeder road or a little local road. The state came back and disallowed about $130,000 of the work and said this is the town’s responsibility because it goes beyond the edges of where the state will pay for in the project,” she said.

The state would also not pay for certain changes, including upgraded guardrails, she said.

“We don’t want just a regular old metal guardrail because we feel that with the character of the town that a steel-backed wooden guard rail is more appropriate,” she said. “We pretty much expected that, but it was a little higher number than we thought it was going to be, but not really by a lot.”

The funds have been set aside in the project’s capital budget from past years’ taxes, she said. 

“We are not newly taxing for this. We are not taking it out of a rainy day fund or anything else. We have been saving up money every year as part of our capital budget and we had enough in that account to pay for this municipal responsibility. It was anticipated when we started saving money,”  she said. 

Questions on timing

Gister previously said that delaying the project for an additional year would require obtaining new cost estimates and could result in higher costs.

But, Bill DeJonge, who wrote to CT Examiner on March 3 expressing his concerns, said he was opposed to the way the project has been moved along in what he described as “a sort of nonstop fashion and very rapidly at the end so that they didn’t miss the government’s money.”

“This thing just got rammed through. Behind it, the committee had been meeting for more than 10 years and then the First Selectwoman got excited about getting it done because of state funding, and said it had to get it done by March 1,” he said by phone on April 9. “It was a palpable emergency to just get this done, come hell or high water and that’s what happened.”

DeJonge, who owns two commercial properties in Chester, said he feared the construction project will put most merchants out of business permanently and the town will take a long time to recover. 

“If the pandemic ends in two months or three months and the construction drags on for six months, it will surely kill all the businesses and kill the town,” he said. “If it all gets done in the same time frame, that’s sort of a lucky break, but I don’t anticipate that.”

Drew Archer, owner of Blackkat Leather at 36 Main Street, said downtown merchants had long been concerned about the potential disruption of business caused by the construction project, but the COVID-19 has compounded the issues.

“My worry is we’re closed because of the coronavirus for two months and then if the construction starts afterwards, then it’s more like six months of business disruption,” he said by phone on April 9. 

Archer, who has a lease through the end of the year, acknowledged that the construction was necessary and would be disruptive no matter when it takes place.

“I think I’m concerned about the loss of business, but it really needs to happen, so whether it happens now or next year or whenever, it’s going to be bad, so we may as well get it over with,” he said.

Supporting businesses

Nancy Pinney, owner of the Chester Gallery at 76 Main Street, said she wished the town had timed the construction to best benefit the merchants. 

“I wish either they had started it when they planned to — so it doesn’t cut into our prime season — or to have found a way to delay the start to next year to give us time to prepare because now we’re all dealing with this coronavirus,” she said. “I think it needs to be done and I look forward to it being done, but I just wish it was put off so they could get a more reasonable start date that doesn’t affect the summer season.” 

She also questioned why a stimulus package wasn’t offered to merchants since the construction will negatively impact business. 

Before COVID-19, Gister said a campaign to support businesses during the construction was part of the plan. 

“We were making plans for how to support the businesses, with messages like ‘we’re still open, come shop Chester,’ and then this coronavirus happened, so we don’t know exactly what we’re going to need and how long this is going to go and what things it’s going to affect,” she said 

Archer said his biggest concern was the appearance of the street. 

“People come to visit town and if half of it’s torn up they’re probably not going to stick around for lunch or walk around. Foot traffic is probably going to be minimal,” he said. “Any kind of publicity for the shops down here would be great, especially once this pandemic ends, it would be great to get some people back into town.” 

Dina Varano, who owns Dina Varano Jewelry at 27 Main St. and has been open for business in downtown Chester for 25 years, said the artisans and shop owners have worked hard over the years to make Chester a shopping and gathering destination. 

Varano promised that Chester’s merchants will work together to create a positive, comfortable experience for their customers when they visit during the construction period.

“We all have an online presence and we are trying to spread the word. At the end of the project it will be beautiful,” she said. “We are all closed now for the safety and health of everyone right now. We’re going to make the best of it and we’ll make this work but we would love some support from the community.”

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