WINDSOR — Natural gas is being heralded as a benefit for businesses by providing a cheaper heating source and creating construction jobs as companies build out the infrastructure to serve central Maine.
For some businesses surrounded by the pipeline construction, however, it’s anything but a boon.
Commuters driving on Route 17 from Augusta and through Windsor are stopped up to four times at single-lane construction zones that sometimes stretch almost a mile.
Russ Heyer and his store, Windsor Convenience, have been at ground zero. The business is in the middle of a single-lane stretch, near the intersection of routes 17 and 32, where flaggers stop cars from all four directions.
Heyer said the construction has suffocated his business, causing many customers to avoid the road completely.
“My money comes from the flow, the constant flow of people,” Heyer said.
The construction on Route 17 has been going on since the end of March, according to the spokesman for the natural gas company, whose 12-inch-wide steel pipes have caused the delays.
“It’s big stuff, and it definitely stops traffic; but they’ve been moving very quickly, and we’re sorry for the delay,” said Dan Hucko, spokesman for Iberdrola USA, parent company of Maine Natural Gas. “As I like to say, temporary inconvenience, permanent improvements.”
The steel pipes will serve as the backbone for the company’s distribution of natural gas to Kennebec Valley. Hucko said construction on the pipeline along Route 17 to Augusta should be finished by July.
Around noon Thursday, a flagger held up a stop sign to a driver in a pickup truck waiting in the single lane to enter the convenience store parking lot. A construction vehicle blocked the narrow entrance to the lot.
After finally being waved through, the man in the pickup yelled something at a construction worker as the worker backed up his vehicle to make room for the customer to pull into a spot.
Other customers were more lighthearted about the continuing inconvenience.
“Round two again,” joked a customer to Heyer before he walked into the store.
Down the road, the Windsor Diner was in the same predicament — in the middle of a one-lane road.
“How’s business? You’re looking at it,” said Jonica Palmer, a diner employee, motioning to the empty tables. Four people the employees called regulars were the only customers sitting in the restaurant at noon Thursday.
Another employee, Tricia Healey, said the restaurant usually has a larger lunchtime crowd. She said weekends have been a little bit better without the construction.
“Hopefully, they hurry up, because this is killing us on the weekdays,” Healey said. “People don’t want to sit in their cars for 20 minutes for breakfast.”
Heyer said there’s been a one-lane road in front of his store for around three weeks since construction started in April.
He estimated he’s lost around $20,000 in revenue as a result of the construction.
“It’s inevitable to have construction, but it shouldn’t be at small businesses’ expense,” Heyer said.
More than 500 customers usually visit the store each day, but Heyer said he would be lucky to break 350 on Thursday.
Like the diner, most customers he gets now are regulars, peopler who don’t mind waiting in long construction lines to go to the store and “shoot the bull,” Heyer said.
“I love my customers. I enjoy it,” he said, “but you don’t enjoy worrying if you’re going to make payroll or not.”
Businesses on Route 17 won’t have much time to breathe this summer before another construction project begins.
The Maine Department of Transportation plans to pave the road from Route 32 to Augusta.
Ted Talbot, spokesman for the department, said paving will begin after the pipeline work ends and will continue until September.
He said the department always listens to the concerns of businesses or homeowners along the construction routes and makes adjustments when possible.
“The last thing we want to do is impact business, commerce or even the taxpayer,” Talbot said. “We’re very aware of that.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663