HALLOWELL — Business owners and residents have been preparing for the reconstruction of Water Street in the city’s historic downtown that’s set to begin in less than four months.

It’s more important than ever for business owners and people in Hallowell to be prepared for anything, especially a loss of business in the downtown district.

From one side of Water Street to the other, business owners have expressed concern for what their bottom lines will look like when the Department of Transportation’s reconstruction of Water Street ends sometime in October. Kim Davis, of Scrummy Afters Candy Shoppe, and Malley Webber, of Hallowell Clay Works, said they’re hopeful people continue to come to the area despite the expected traffic and parking problems.

“There’s no way around it: it’s going to affect business,” Davis said. “We’re just now getting people used to coming to central Maine and Hallowell, and I worry the construction will deter people.”

The transportation department will reconstruct a 2,000-foot stretch of the busy corridor — also known as U.S. Route 201 — beginning in April and expect to complete the bulk of the work by October. Contractors will work Monday through Thursday from sunrise to sunset and from sunrise to 3 p.m. Friday. Project Manager Ernie Martin said there may be five 24-hour work periods at the intersections of Temple and Water streets and Winthrop and Water streets, but that won’t be determined until the project is underway.

“My concern is that people won’t be able to see what’s going on (downtown),” Webber said. “There’s going to be a vacuum of people avoiding the area.”

Three Hallowell groups — the Down With the Crown and Hallowell Arts and Cultural committees, and the Hallowell Board of Trade — have been meeting since last year to brainstorm and come up with ideas to continue to make downtown Hallowell an attractive destination during the six-month construction period, which includes Hallowell’s busy summer season.

Martin and the DOT will host an open house at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall to discuss final plans and answer any public questions about the nearly $5 million project.

BUSINESSES WILL ‘TAKE A HIT’

Tom Allen, owner of Kennebec Cigar, said he can’t predict how much business he’ll lose, but he knows he’s going to be hurt during the construction period. One advantage he has, however, is that there is a rear entrance to his store, though parking behind the building is a problem.

He said he has put a little money aside to help offset any potential losses he may endure, but Davis said a business can’t put money aside if they aren’t making enough money.

“I can’t imagine people have been able to squirrel away any money,” she said. “We work really hard and are into our fifth year, and we’re just now seeing a decent profit.”

Andrew Silsby, the CEO and president of Kennebec Savings Bank and the chairman of the Maine Bankers Association, said business owners should plan for a 25 percent loss is sales and plan their budget around that number. He said while businesses will probably see a loss in revenue during their peak season, the biggest challenges may come later in the year.

“This project is a little different because I think it’ll be tougher during the slower part of the season,” Silsby said. “It may not be June or July when they see the challenges.”

Silsby said he think the fear of change is greater than the reality and he will try hard to visit organizations and businesses on Water Street to support them during the construction. He is confident the community will step up and help support their local businesses and fellow citizens.

“I’m optimistic, and I don’t think it’ll be as bad as people think,” Silsby said. “We can’t get complacent.”

Business owners know their business, Silsby said, and if there is a cash-flow problem, there are people at Kennebec Savings or other financial institutions ready and willing to provide assistance. He said a lot of other downtowns compare themselves to Hallowell, and he’s confident that Hallowell can survive this project.

Webber said she’s not worried about her business because she has a lot of repeat customers and the people who take her pottery classes are committed. She’s concerned that because there will be construction equipment and activity, as many people won’t be driving through the downtown, which means there will be less visibility to all the businesses.

“I’m hoping that we all survive, and I hope that people still come down and show support,” she said.

KEEPING PEOPLE WORKING

The Liberal Cup owner Geoff Houghton said he has fear and anxiety about the project, but it’s not entirely tied to a potential loss of sales.

“My biggest concern is being able to keep my staff intact,” Houghton said. “I have a good staff, and I don’t want to lose anybody because I can’t give them the hours they usually have.”

Houghton said his restaurant’s regular customers will continue to come to the popular eatery, but he is worried about the casual visitor, especially during the summer, who comes to the restaurant on a whim or because they came upon it while driving through Hallowell.

“I’m anticipating a 10 percent loss, and I’d be OK with that, but I don’t want to lose 30 percent,” he said. “If it gets past 20 percent, I’ll probably have to sacrifice some jobs.”

Houghton said the people who come to Hallowell frequently and residents will get used to the new traffic patterns and potential parking problems quickly, but he said the first few weeks will be a shock. It will become the new normal in Hallowell eventually, he said.

He said he doesn’t plan on doing any additional advertising, but he said the city, with the help of local organizations, will be creative in coming up with ways to entice people to come to Hallowell. Just don’t expect any ‘buy one meal, get one free’ deals at The Liberal Cup.

“We want people to come in, but we’re going to be struggling, so we can’t do too many deals,” Houghton said. “I am going to put a hold on any capital expenditures, like new equipment, until the money starts rolling in again.”

PARKING MIGHT GET WORSE

Finding a spot during peak times, especially in the summer, has been a problem in Hallowell for years and one the city continues to work to address. During the Water Street reconstruction, there will be a loss of nearly 30 parking spots, so finding a place to park to shop or eat downtown will be even harder.

Hallowell’s parking is tricky during the best of times, Houghton said, so when there are less spaces and detours and construction, it’ll be a greater feat to find a good place to park. Business owners hope the parking challenges aren’t enough to keep people away, but some are afraid it might.

“If you can’t stop here and park, you’re not going to drive around looking for a spot,” Allen said. “If there’s no spots, forget about it.”

Allen said there are people who won’t stop in Hallowell because there’s not enough parking during prime time now, so he can only imagine it’ll get worse when there’s less places to park. He said most businesses are a destination for people, and if people can’t get to their destination easily, they won’t bother.

“I need the people during June, July, August and most of September just like everybody else,” he said.

City Manager Nate Rudy said the city continues to make progress in negotiations to move the historic Dummer House to build a 30-space municipal parking lot on Central Street. The city hopes that lot will be completed before the project starts in April, and it would go a long way to alleviating some of the parking concerns people have.

“We’re certainly invested in making sure in the short term we minimize the effects of the road construction,” Rudy said. “The city has been involved in dozens of conversations with DOT and the public.”

LONG-TERM BENEFIT

Since the project was announced, the transportation department has held more than a dozen meetings in Hallowell, the City Council has discussed it at most of its meetings, there have been articles in newspapers and social media posts on Facebook. Rudy said he can’t imagine anybody not knowing the project is coming, though Houghton said he has people asking every day when the project starts.

Houghton said he thinks the city is going to look great when the work — which includes removing the crown in the road, adding new sidewalks and streetlights — is completed. He said the sacrifice businesses make during construction will be worth it to everybody in the end.

Webber agreed and said getting through the short-term pains will be a challenge, but it will ultimately be a good thing for the city of Hallowell.

“It’s going to be really good for all of us,” she said. “It’s going to benefit us all.”

Davis said she understands the need to complete the project, especially considering major work hasn’t happened on Water Street since World War I. She just hopes people will still come to the candy shop for the experience, rather than forgoing Hallowell altogether.

“It will be awesome, but I worry that things won’t come back in the first year,” Davis said. “It can take two or three years for people to come back.”

Allen said there will be businesses that will struggle, and there may be some that don’t survive, but he said the construction is something the city and the state cannot afford to delay any longer.

“It’s going to be beautiful when it’s done,” he said. “We just have to grin and bear it now.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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