Businesses face challenges in midst of downtown construction

Downtown construction
A construction crew working in the 400 block of Main Street in downtown Grand Junction belies the fact nearby stores remain open during the latest phase of the renovation project, with parking available behind storefronts and in the Rood Avenue parking garage. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

Few dispute the contention reconstruction of Main Street in downtown Grand Junction is needed to help prevent such problems as the flooding that occurred in October. The replacement of water lines and storm drains will help ensure downtown can handle everything from routine rain showers to heavy downpours. Such additional amenities as wider sidewalks, brick planters, new trees and a fountain for children all will help make the area more aesthetically pleasing — and attractive to customers.

In the meantime, though, downtown merchants are trying to make sure shoppers know their businesses are open and there’s plenty of parking in the midst of heavy construction work that’s tearing up the street.

“It’s been interesting to watch the process,” said Kathy Dirks, marketing and communications director for the Downtown Partnership, which encompasses the city’s Downtown Development Authority and merchant-run Downtown Association. “It’s been very well received.”

Despite overall positive feedback for the partnership, some business owners expressed concerns after construction work began in early January in the 400 block of Main Street. A normally slow month for business, some owners said foot traffic was extremely sparse, particularly after a snowstorm hit downtown the second week of February. Julie Groll, owner of Vintage West Boutique, announced she’d close the business in April, blaming construction for slow business.

At least one other merchant took exception to the closure. “I believe that Julie Groll was not ‘telling it like it is,’” wrote Allison Blevins, owner of Tangle, in an e-mail sent to some downtown businesses. “Despite the construction, Main Street is thriving,” Blevins wrote.

Blevins said her business was up 27 percent in January compared to the same month last year. She said there are many factors involved in success, including selling products people want to buy and properly marketing those products. Blevins said her business is typically busier in winter than summer because she sells knitting supplies.

Chris Brown, owner of Brown Cycles, is an active marketer who participated in a cooperative effort to step up advertising for downtown in January. Brown toyed with ways to turn lemons into lemonade, suggesting people might want to come downtown to watch construction. “It’s fun to watch crews cut the street to pieces,” he said.

Brown even posted a computer-altered image on his Facebook page that featured a mountain bike course in place of the construction equipment in front of his store.

Brown and 30 other merchants are participating in a campaign to give customers a chance to win discount coupons at downtown stores.

Other businesses have shifted gears to match that of the heavy construction equipment operating just outside their doors. Gelato Junction and Desserts added soup and other hot items to its menu of ice cream and cool foods. The business also extended its hours to serve construction workers coffee early in the morning.

Businesses give customers parking tokens that allow the patrons to park free for one hour in the Rood Avenue parking garage the next time they visit downtown.

“A lot of the businesses are doing creative things,” Dirks said. “Most of them planned for it.”

Like Blevins, Brown thinks there are too many factors to blame slow business solely on construction.

“Throw in three years of a bad economy and the uplift project and winter and it’s a big great crap shoot,” he said. Like Blevins, Brown actually saw an increase in business in January, although he noted January of 2010 was generally colder than January 2011 — which affects customer traffic.

Dirks provides business owners weekly construction updates via e-mail. She said the communication alleviates concern about such factors as whether or not water might be shut off to a business. Dirks also keeps in contact with block captains — business owners who act as point people for a city block.

Sorter Construction of Grand Junction serves as general contractor for the Main Street renovation project, submitting a low bid of $2.89 million for this year’s work. The work is scheduled for completion by June 8, in time for the first downtown farmer’s market of the year.

The City of Grand Junction will fund water line replacement. The remainder of the project is funded by the DDA, which is partly funded by city government. There’s also money from taxes paid only by downtown area businesses.

The funding is similar to that used for work on Seventh Street and Colorado Avenue in recent years. Main Street will look like those projects, with a narrower street, wider sidewalks and historic-looking streetlights. There also will be more sheltered seating areas. Outdoor dining is planned in front of the Rockslide restaurant.

The project will be completed just a year before the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the start of Project Foresight, which resulted in the serpentine street layout and earned national recognition for downtown. The design helped earn Grand Junction designation as an All-American City by Look magazine.

Businesses currently affected by the renovation project aren’t the first ones to feel the effects of construction on Main Street. Businesses in the 200 and 300 blocks of Main Street faced their own challenges last year during construction there. Dream Café opened while work was going on in front of its doors last winter, yet did a brisk business during construction.

“There’s always a challenge when you’re in business,” Blevins said.