White River Junction business owners eyeing the other side of roadwork

  • Bailey Nott, center, looks to make sure a section of storm drain pipe is lined up correctly as he and other crew members install it on South Main Street in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Jay Olmstead, engineer with water resources engineering firm Aldrich and Elliott, said he spoke to business owners in the area before the construction project started in early June and tried to schedule work in a way that would have the least impact on business. “We haven’t had any complaints,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Clockwise from top left, Joyce Flanagan, of Hanover, N.H., holds her granddaughter Harlow Brooke, 1, while she and her daughter Ellen Flanagan, of Truckee, Calif., talk to Marcus and Dana Head, of Norwich, Vt., their daughter Kelsey Head, her husband Mike Loots, and their son Bear Loots, 6 weeks, of Eagle, Colo., at Phnom Penh Sandwich Station in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Marcus and Dana Head eat at the restaurant every week despite the construction that may be deterring some customers. “We’ll go through hell or high water to get here for lunch,” Dana said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An ongoing construction project on South Main Street is reflected in the window of River Nutrition in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Some business owners, like Sarin Tin of Phnom Penh Sandwich Station, say they have seen their business drop off because of the disruption to traffic and parking. “We were dead after construction started,” Tin said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/5/2022 9:46:49 PM
Modified: 7/9/2022 8:10:31 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The $5 million overhaul of White River Junction’s downtown water and sewage system continues this summer, ripping up roads and sidewalks to dissect the infrastructure below and rebuild the utilities to modern standards. Businesses along the route are bracing for a challenging season on the tail of COVID-19 shutdowns, with limited parking, obstructed storefronts, dusty streets and missing sidewalks.

Scheduled for completion by the end of September, this phase of the project began June 1 and includes replacing water and sewage lines under the intersection of North and South main streets, both sides of North Main Street up to and including the Bridge Street intersection, as well as South Main Street to the corner of Gates Street, and up Gates to Currier Street. The project includes installation of new roadways, sidewalks, drainage and streetscape improvements, some of which could be delayed to next spring depending on weather, according to Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis.

On the first Sunday of summer, Tuckerbox’s sidewalk patio buzzed with brunch diners. Across the street, parked bucket to bucket where public parking had turned to dirt, loomed two-story-high yellow excavators. When the project crosses the street and upturns the earth beneath the tables, all dining will move inside until a new sidewalk emerges, however long that takes.

Working in the kitchen was Jackie Oktay, co-owner of Tuckerbox and sister store Little Istanbul, which are both on this summer’s construction route. She focused on the silver linings.

“Last summer, we expanded the patio into the road and could seat 40 people out there,” she pointed out, recounting the months when COVID-19 regulations paired with the construction offered a rare opportunity to set up expanded alfresco dining.

“The work is way overdue,” she explained. “We’re looking forward to it. We used to have the water shut off three or four times a year,” which she described as emergency events, especially for restaurants required to immediately close with no notice.

“They said two months, so we’re planning on four,” Oktay said, and so far, business hasn’t been affected, “not yet.” In the present, she enjoys imagining the finished product on the horizon. “It will be so nice when it’s done. The sidewalks will be beautiful.”

Around the corner at 26 N. Main St., Kim Souza, founder and co-owner of clothing store Revolution, is thankful for her “loyal customer base,” which she credits in part to strong sales.

“It has not deterred our customer base,” she said of the construction, framed through her window front. “We appreciate them so much.”

Souza said she has been “surprised and grateful” that Revolution’s business hasn’t lagged and that she’s seen a mix of new and old customers visiting the store. “With so many weddings and graduations happening, we’ve seen a lot of customers bring their families in,” Souza added.

Next door, Pam Post, owner of Post stationery store, also saw an uptick of out-of-town customers recently.

“Business continues to be really good,” she said, adding that perhaps the construction hasn’t affected her as much since the shop lacks designated parking, so her customers mostly arrive on foot.

Kimberly Pierce, manager of Piecemeal Pies on South Main, eyed the silent equipment parked across the street on Sunday, as a line of customers formed behind her. Piecemeal Pies is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and also does not have designated parking. “Most of our customers walk here and mostly on the weekends, so it hasn’t really affected business,” Pierce said.

No DPW work takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, allowing a reprieve for residents and businesses that remain open on weekends.

Ernie Nauopoulos, owner of C&S Pizza at 104 S. Main St., reported his business “was not at all affected by the construction,” as phones rang and customers picked up orders on a recent Thursday afternoon.

C&S employee Cameron Keener, who drove one of three delivery vehicles when construction crossed their driveway last summer, is thankful the bulk of the work has passed. He confirmed that while delivery drivers experienced some complications during that time, he has seen little effect on business overall.

“By 4 or 5 o’clock, they’re done,” Keener said, adding that the restaurant’s recent two-week closure was unrelated to the construction and due to “heat and personally needing a break.”

Though in the minority, some downtown businesses are struggling. Phnom Penh Sandwich Station’s standalone building on the corner of North and South main streets is currently surrounded by dirt, in the heart of the project’s footprint. A flier on the front door advertises in bold capitals: “NOW HIRING,” for positions at both the White River Junction and Lebanon locations.

Two doors down at 27 N. Main St., Juel Modern Apothecary Cafe is normally closed on Sundays and Mondays, but hours are dwindling. The sign on their door reads: “Temporarily closing at 2 PM daily until we have a full team. We promise we’re working hard to find more team members.”

Owners from both businesses have turned to crowdfunding for a financial boost, though only Phnom Penh specifically cites the construction as a factor, with owner Sarin Tin stating on her GoFundMe page, “We’re already slow because of COVID-19, now this construction is further hurting our business.”

A few blocks south on South Main, businesses owners who watched the construction inch by their front stoops last summer remain thankful for customers’ support throughout the experience and for the positive relationships kindled with the contracted employees performing the work.

Mark Babson, who owns and operates River Roost Brewery at 230 S. Main St., said “it definitely affected the parking lot” he shares with Big Fatty’s BBQ and the recently reopened Elixir, but he believes his business remained steady due to loyal local customers coming on bike and foot and because the company’s primary source of income comes from distribution.

Babson was thankful for the contractors on the ground who gave him a “five- or four-day notice before they turned the water off,” crucial information for a brewery which needs to know “especially when they’re messing with water lines, because we use a lot of water in brewing.”

Brandon Fox, who owns Big Fatty’s, agreed it’s nice to have more customer parking this summer, but overall, the experience wasn’t bad.

“The workers were great. They kept us informed, and we fed them,” he said.

He also praised Souza, a member of the Hartford Selectboard, for keeping him and other affected businesses in the loop throughout the process.

Fox and Babson both attributed foot traffic to helping keep their doors open during construction. This summer, they are welcoming those customers back and enticing new visitors with their neighboring bustling roadside patios. With the new water system now in place, Babson looks forward to upgrading. He lit up imagining a tasting room with seating and not one but two bathrooms.

L.A. Wetzel can be reached at LAWetzel@proton.me.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of River Roost Brewery.

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