HALLOWELL — Water Street business owners are feeling the strain on their shops due to reduced traffic during ongoing road construction.

Maine Department of Transportation officials said the department is doing their best to accommodate them during construction, but admitted work can have adverse impact on commerce.

Boynton’s Market owner Don LaChance said he hasn’t taken a salary this year to keep the business afloat.

“August is usually our busiest month and it’s going to end up being one of the worst months of the year,” he said. “I haven’t had to let go of any employees (and) we’re still able to pay our bills. The only difference is that I haven’t taken a salary this year.

“It’s a sacrifice but it’s what we have to do to stay open,” added LaChance.

He said bars and restaurants may not feel the same strain as a market, as markets operate with a smaller margin on their products.

Jamie Houghton, co-owner of the Liberal Cup, said the construction, which decreased foot and vehicle traffic through Hallowell, has noticeably affected her lunch services. She said dinner services have been steady, due to people usually having more time to navigate downtown traffic and parking.

Annie Huang, owner of the Lucky Garden said in April, when construction began, that a barrier briefly blocked the parking lot of her business. She said that she considered having more signs to show her business is open because barriers and fences could block customers’ view of the business.

Project Manager Ernie Martin said the businesses in town have done a good job adapting to the project. He said the initiative, dubbed “Down with the Crown,” from the Hallowell Board of Trade has done a good job providing help to businesses.

Nancy Bischoff, a member of the Down with the Crown committee, said the project has raised funds for radio advertisements and helped with art projects to lift Hallowell’s visibility during construction.

It’s not just foot traffic that has been impacted by the construction, according to Councilor Lynn Irish, owner of Whipper Snappers Quilt Studio, at last week’s City Council meeting. She said then that her business had both of its entrances “closed off” by crews from Sargent Corporation, contractors for the Maine DOT’s project.

That was right after Councilor Lisa Harvey-McPherson, chairperson of the council’s Highway Committee, said the project was “going well.”

“Well, last week Sargent got slapped with a fine,” Irish said. “They, (on) my building, closed off both of my entrances. And they tried to, evidently, at the Liberal Cup and (co-owner Jamie Houghton) went out and said ‘I don’t have another entrance.'”

Houghton confirmed Monday that she did speak with contractors when they tried to block her entrance during business hours. The Liberal Cup only has one entrance, which faces Water Street, but she said workers thought there was another behind the business.

The workers were “very easy to work with,” Houghton said, and altered their plan once she spoke to them, explained her hours and the importance of having that entrance accessible.

However, Maine DOT spokesperson Ted Talbot confirmed Monday that Sargent was not issued a “violation” for an incident two weeks ago. A violation is the highest rung of a reprimand system Maine DOT uses for its contractors.

“First, just to be clear, we do not fine the contractors,” he said. “If there’s a continued violation, we will withhold payments. The intention is to have the contractor stay within the plan (they) submitted.”

Contractors submit projections and goals during work, said Karen Libby, project resident for the Maine DOT, and the state agency will issue a verbal and written warning before a violation is leveled. The financial loss associated with a violation comes at the end of the project. A percentage of the total contract is retained by Maine DOT until all work is reviewed, then released as a final payment. The violation “fines” are drawn from that money, she said.

Libby said there was no violation given to Sargent for blocking entrances to businesses that day — or at all during the project. She said the entrance to Whipper Snappers was inaccessible for about 15 minutes while a metal step was installed in a hole dug in front of the business. Crews were replacing a catch basin and a culvert at the corner of Winthrop Street and Water Street at the time.

Further, Maine DOT Project Manager Ernie Martin said guidelines for the project include providing continued access to businesses. He said crews working in front of businesses could appear to be blocking the entrance, but access is always available if a patron asks crews to enter a building.

Violations could be assessed if access is not provided to businesses or if business owners are not informed that work near their shop could affect access for an amount of time.

Irish declined the Kennebec Journal’s request for comment on the incident after the meeting and was not available for comment on Monday.

Talbot also said business owners who are experiencing difficulties with construction are welcome to visit an on-site project office and express their concerns.

According to a weekly MDOT update, crews are working on installing light bases, excavating sidewalks, installing granite curbs and installing drainage on the west side of Hallowell’s downtown. Work on the west side of Water Street in downtown is expected to be completed by Oct. 5, with all construction except for surface pavement to be complete by Nov. 16. Paving is scheduled to take place in early June 2019.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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