Lebanon Mall businesses say foot tunnel construction is undermining sales

  • Paul Hastings, of Lebanon, N.H., looks at the work-in-progress on the tunnel reconstruction under the mall in downtown Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 3, 2020. Hastings, who worked in the construction industry, said he stops by regularly to take a peek. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Salesman Sal Cania, of Lebanon, N.H., shows Jools Skeet, of Sharon, Vt., how to reattach the front wheel to her newly-purchased e-bike at Omer and Bob's in downtown Lebanon on Aug. 3, 2020. Looking forward to being able to use the bicycle on hills, Skeet said her family's cutting down to one car with the new addition. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebar is installed before concrete is poured for the roof of the tunnel at the western end of the mall in downtown Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 3, 2020. Owners of The Lebanon Diner located next to the project announced in early June they would not reopen, due to the pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2020 5:01:23 PM
Modified: 8/4/2020 5:01:18 PM

LEBANON — Efforts to reconstruct a 300-foot bicycle and pedestrian tunnel underneath the Lebanon Mall are hampering sales for local businesses that rely on downtown foot traffic to make ends meet.

Local store owners say the loss of roughly 30 parking spots near Hanover Street and behind River Valley Community College makes it difficult for customers to access their shops.

Fences separating portions of the mall near Lebanon Village Pizza also contribute to frustration, they say, forcing customers on long detours around the mall.

“We used to have people come right through and now they have to go all around,” said Louiza Kritikos, who co-owns the pizza shop. “It’s hard for them.”

Still, there’s hope that the mall, a product of 1960s urban redevelopment, may come out of construction better than before it started several months ago.

The new tunnel is meant to connect the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail to the Mascoma River Greenway, an extension that would run from downtown Lebanon to West Lebanon. Backers say the feature will draw new customers and life to downtown.

“In the long term, it’s going to be great,” said Breck Taber, co-owner of Omer and Bob’s sports shop. “I think it’s a good project but for some businesses, it’s definitely had a pretty negative impact, to say the least.”

The possible renovation of 39 Hanover St., popularly known as the Shoetorium building, by Ledyard Charter School may also add to the momentum and potentially see the return of retail in now-vacant spaces.

The tunnel work, which began in earnest this spring, creates headaches by forcing delivery drivers to walk goods from the area of Salt hill Pub, while eateries can’t offer the same amenities common elsewhere in the city, according to Kritikos.

Lebanon Village Pizza can’t set up outdoor seating because the plaza outside its doors is an active construction zone, she said, and indoor eating is out of the question for many who are bothered by constant banging.

“We did lose business,” Kritikos said, adding that she’ll be happy to see the project wrap up this fall.

Lebanon Village Pizza isn’t alone in seeing its sales recently decline. The Lebanon Diner, whose owners worried in January that the tunnel construction could harm their business, announced its permanent closure in June.

At the time, the nearly decade-old eatery’s demise was attributed to financial difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crews with Concord-based company E.D. Swett are making “fairly good” progress reconstructing the tunnel, which has been closed since 2014 when engineers found the structure was in “poor to very poor condition,” according to Patrick Murray, the project’s resident engineer. Before it closed, the tunnel was little-used and marred by graffiti, and the Greenway trail had yet to open.

The tunnel’s roof, which was structurally unsound, forcing the city to close off some parking spots six years ago, is about halfway complete, and more concrete will be poured in the coming weeks, he said in a phone interview.

“Everything’s on track,” Murray said of the $2.5 million project. “The latest schedule update has them completing everything except for tree plantings by November.”

But parts of the mall could reopen before then — contractors are shooting for Labor Day — with short-term closures as paving stones are replaced, he said.

Designs for the new tunnel show a system of crosswalks and sidewalks directing people from the city’s lower parking lot into the tunnel, which would run under the Lebanon Mall and Hanover Street before ending at a stone-covered trail area near Route 4. The tunnel would be lighted but also include a large skylight that would provide natural light.

Taber, co-owner of Omer and Bob’s, said he’s looking forward to the completed feature and opportunities it might bring.

“I think the future for Lebanon hopefully is super-bright, especially once that tunnel’s done,” he said. “It will be a good addition and hopefully more attractive to more business.”

Bob Haynes, who co-owns the Shoetorium building next to Lebanon Village Pizza, also is optimistic about the mall’s prospects.

He’s currently in the process of selling the two-story structure to its current occupant, Ledyard Charter School, which is seeking a $1 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the purchase and a renovation.

If all goes well, the sale may progress in the next few weeks, according to Mike Harris, chairman of Ledyard’s board of trustees. Plans for the building’s currently unoccupied second floor haven’t been finalized but could include a retail store or office space, said Harris, a former school superintendent in the Upper Valley.

“I could see it being an excellent retail office, attorney’s office or medical office,” Haynes, who is also executive director of the White River Junction-based Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation. “It could be a number of things.”

“I think this will give (downtown Lebanon) a big shot in the arm,” he added.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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