HALLOWELL — A year after the last public forum on the potential rebuilding of Water Street through the city’s downtown, business owners’ concerns about the project remain.
That was clear after at a Thursday public meeting at City Hall, where Hallowell and Maine Department of Transportation officials took questions from an auditorium full of businesspeople and city residents.
But since the other public meeting last May, many in the downtown business community have worried about the project crippling the downtown for a summer.
While city councilors largely favor rebuilding the road, part of U.S. Route 201, and the downtown thoroughfare with an exaggerated crown in the middle and sloping toward the sidewalk on the Kennebec River side, many have said the project, while needed, would greatly reduce foot traffic and potentially put small businesses under.
Ruth Lachance, owner of Boynton’s Market, said the lost revenue likely to affect her business will reduce the amount she can give to other community organizations, like churches and sports teams.
“It doesn’t just impact the businesses downtown, it impacts everyone,” she said.
Councilor Alan Stearns, chairman of the council’s road committee, acknowledged that,saying weathering the impact of construction downtown will take a community effort.
“This will not be fun,” he said. “None of us pretend that there’s any way that we can mitigate the impact on everybody or anticipate the impact on everybody.
“We know this will be the year from hell.”
The reconstruction project wouldn’t happen until at least 2017, likely taking between five and six months, depending on construction restrictions. However, a city council committee has been paring down options for the scope of construction since last year.
Fully reconstructing the stretch mostly between Temple Street and the Augusta line — about a mile — would cost an estimated $2.8 million in state and federal money and restore the road to modern highway standards.
That option would allow for new sidewalks with an extension from downtown south to the boat launch, more street-side parking and lighting and utility improvements. Hallowell would have to pay for improvements that aren’t road-related. Those add-ons will be decided after the city council makes a formal decision on rebuilding the road, likely in June.
Bob Patterson’s message was the same on Thursday as it was in May. The owner of Timeless Treasures, a downtown collectibles store, said summer work will drive businesses out.
“There’s shop owners here that rely on that part of the year solely to get them through the entire year,” he said. “How many businesses can we expect to drive out of business if we wrap up their income for that time of the year?”
Many suggestions from the attendees were directly conflicting.
Wendy Harrington, a downtown business owner, asked for round-the-clock work to shorten the duration of the project because “I’d rather go without sleep than without an income.”
But Jane Orbeton, chairwoman of the planning board, asked councilors to consider the impact of overnight on those who live downtown.
Melissa Walker, who co-owns Kennebec Pizza Co. downtown, said construction should be delayed on and around Old Hallowell Day, the city’s annual July festival.
But after another attendee asked for a guarantee that the project could be done in one season, Brad Foley, the transportation department’s highway program manager, said the more restrictions there are on the project, the longer it will take.
Still, there was an overriding acknowledgement that the road needs work.
Fred Knee, owner of the Hallowell Antique Mall on Water Street, said the bad utility lines below the road make the project necessary, and it would help businesses make their plans for the long term.
“I think this gives us an opportunity to control the entire project — to plan it and get it done,” he said.