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Roadwork riles

19th Street businesses taking hit because of roadwork

Red Deer business owner Shivonne Vienneau was one of many hit hard by the pandemic and she is feeling a sense of déjà vu.

The owner of Tail Blazers Health Food Store for Pets is once again losing customers, this time because of a huge project to tear up and rebuild nearby 19th Street that has greatly reduced access to her business and about a dozen others.

Vienneau said she is not normally outspoken, but with her COVID experience fresh in her mind she recently posted a message on her personal Facebook page recounting business owners’ struggles. It soon had 25 shares and two dozen comments, many of them expressing support.

“I had a business during COVID and it closed down, it was a gym,” said Vienneau on Friday. “It was frustrating because it was no fault of our own. It was due to all the restrictions. We just couldn’t bounce back afterward.

“So, I wanted to react a little quicker because I just felt we are going down that same route. I feel kind of helpless like we did during COVID.

“It’s frustrating as a business owner when you know that your business was successful prior to something impacting it that is beyond your control.”

That something is a $25-million reconstruction project of 19th Avenue that began last month and will be completed in 2024 with a traffic circle at 4oth Avenue.

While rebuilding the road is underway, traffic has been reduced to two lanes and no left turns are available in or out of the development where Tail Blazers and about a dozen other businesses are located.

Vienneau estimates her sales are down about 40 per cent and a neighbouring business owner has seen revenues drop at least 30 per cent at the south store.

“Ourselves, if this stays for five months we’ll be down $150,000 to $200,000,” adding she hopes to offset some losses through her store at 6130 67th St.

Not only business owners are taking a financial hit. Their staff are also feeling the effects. Some have been laid off and others had their hours cut.

Vienneau and other business owners met with city representatives on Friday morning to see if there was anything that could be done to improve access to their businesses while the road project, expected to take until October, is finished.

They heard there were no immediate solutions, but the city would review the situation over the next two weeks to see what could be done to help the businesses. Another meeting has been set up for June 21.

“We were kind of hoping and pushing for a left-hand turn out of the complex with maybe a flagger or some type of traffic control,” said Vienneau.

“We were just told that would not be possible due to the fact it would back up traffic on 19th.”

Vienneau understands a project of this size is inevitably going to cause disruption but she believes all options have not been explored to allow better access to her business and others nearby.

At the very least, business owners would like to see spots added each side of the commercial area where vehicles could make a U-turn rather than have to travel all the way to Gaetz Avenue and 40th Avenue or Irwin Avenue further to the east.

“Everybody in here, we’re all small businesses, locally owned and operated, just trying to make this work. I’m open to anything.”

3 Broke Sisters clothing store owner Melissa Bolduc has been open only six weeks at her new location across from Trail Blazers so she does not have an accurate way to gauge how much business she has lost.

But she’s heard others’ sales are down 30 to 65 per cent and believes she is likely comparable.

An obvious business barometer is the drive-through at the nearby Starbucks.

“Usually the Starbucks is lined up around the corner. There is not even a car in the drive-through right now,” she said on Friday morning.

“Unfortunately all this construction has not been perfect timing for starting a new business and for all of these businesses trying to grow.”

Bolduc agrees with Vienneau that there must be a way to improve access, whether it is a flag person or a U-turn spot.

Russ Watts, city development and transportation engineer, said the city was well aware that business owners would be affected and their needs were looked at closely during planning.

The problem with allowing the intersection to operate as usual with left turns allowed was that traffic would quickly back up far down 19th Street in each direction because of the lane closures.

“When you go down to two lanes and you lose your turn bays it really slows things down and it gets to the point nobody is moving,” he said, adding soon drivers would avoid the area entirely.

“If we were to implement that change (to allow left turns) it would have a bigger, broader, longer term impact to that area, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Also, allowing more room for traffic but less for construction crews and their heavy equipment could mean the project would take longer to complete. Instead of being done this October it could extend to next year.

Knowing that businesses will be affected by construction, the choice was made to get it done as quickly as possible.

Watts said there may be options to shorten the construction period or to open the road sooner. The city will know better in a couple of weeks when crews start working on the road further east, where there are different soil conditions. And weather is always a wild card in central Alberta.

“We think we can have better answer for the businesses if we can get through the next two weeks.”

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Paul Cowley

About the Author: Paul Cowley

Paul grew up in Brampton, Ont. and began his journalism career in 1990 at the Alaska Highway News in Fort. St. John, B.C.
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