HALLOWELL — Major construction on Water Street will cause economic disaster in downtown Hallowell, several business owners said at a public forum on Wednesday.

“You’re going to drive a lot of these businesses right out of town and out of business, you’re going to lose every cent they have,” said Bob Patterson, of Timeless Treasures. “When this happens, Hallowell will in turn lose tremendous tax revenue because none of the owners will be able to afford paying taxes.”

More than 50 people turned out for a public forum at City Hall about the Maine Department of Transportation feasibility study for repairing Water Street requested by the City Council.

The department has drilled pavement core samples and sent cameras through the stormwater pipes under the street to determine whether there should be a full reconstruction or a more superficial rehabilitation project.

The study will also examine traffic data, pedestrian patterns, environmental issues and access for people with disabilities.

The study report should be finished by November, but it won’t include a design or many of the details business owners were seeking Wednesday about how, when and for how long parts of the street and sidewalks would be closed.

The $150,000 feasibility study, the costs of which are being split between the city and the Department of Transportation, doesn’t include funding for design work. If city officials choose to submit the project as a candidate for design, that would take 12 to 18 months, and the project would not be a candidate for construction funding until 2016 or later.

That timeline makes Patti Burnett, owner of Dom’s Barber Shop, feel better about the project.

“It’s actually nice because you get a little heads-up and then you can start preparing, maybe save a little bit of money for the time when you’re perhaps going to lose a percentage of your business,” she said in an interview before the forum.

Hallowell hasn’t commited to anything beyond the feasibility study, but Councilor Alan Stearns said it will be important to be decisive once the study is finished.

“The worst thing we can do is have this drag out for 20 years of uncertainty where nobody dares invest downtown because there’s a cloud of a possible project that never happens,” said Stearns, the chairman of the Highway Committee.

The Department of Transportation has given Water Street a D for road condition ffrom Temple Street north to the Augusta line. From Temple street south to Maple Street, it gets a B because of a light paving project done last year, but that has a lifespan of only four to six years.

Nathan Howard, a project manager for the Department of Transportation, showed pictures from the inspection of the stormwater system that included a section of crushed metal pipe and a spot where a utility pole had punctured a pipe.

“There may be parts that can be saved, but most of it needs to be replaced,” he said.

If the system deteriorates further, it could cause sinkholes or flooding, he said.

It would be most efficient to do roadwork and utility work at the same time, but Howard said he does not know if the construction of a natural gas pipeline would align with the project.

A full reconstruction would probably take several months and could spread across multiple construction seasons if done in sections.

Ernie Martin, a project manager at the Department of Transportation, said outside-the-box options could be considered during the design process, such as shutting down Water Street for a month to get the work over with, rather than trying to maintain one or two lanes of traffic over several months.

Some business owners, such as Aurilla Holt of Berry & Berry Floral, said they’d prefer the one-month closure, depending on the time of year.

One person suggested doing night work, as was done on State Street in Augusta last year, just north of downtown Hallowell, but others said there is also residential property in downtown Hallowell and the importance of nightlife could make that difficult.

Martin is working on a project on U.S. Route 1 in Ogunquit and said that project could provide lessons for maintaining a vibrant downtown through construction. He said he’s working closely with the local Chamber of Commerce and that department officials want to work the same way with the business community in Hallowell.

Holt said after the forum that she’s scared for downtown Hallowell.

“I’m afraid of what will be left after this,” she said. “What makes Hallowell what it is, if it’s gone, did we really achieve anything?”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]