By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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Businesses along Railroad Avenue reported impacts on customer visits because of the construction, which began last fall, but all business owners interviewed last week said they’re looking forward to a new look for the waterfront area.
“None of us are negative about an improvement, but it’s hard to take a financial hit in a time of economic struggle,” said Edna Petersen, owner of the Necessities and Temptations gift shop at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Laurel Street.
Petersen said her gift-and-apparel shop was particularly affected during Christmas, though she was thankful for the customers who continue to patronize her shop.
“I am very grateful to all the local loyal shoppers,” Petersen said. “I know it has been difficult for them to work their way through the construction.”
Petersen could not say for sure if the difference in business from this year with last year was because of construction, a dragging economy or both.
But she felt that the disruption of pedestrian walking patterns has made it much less attractive for customers already downtown to visit her shop on the spur of the moment.
Petersen’s story of impacts on retail shoppers was a common one among Railroad Avenue businesses, though so was their appreciation for the time city officials have taken to talk with business owners about how the construction is progressing.
“They’ve been very forthcoming and answered my issues as they arose,” said Greg Scherer, owner of Pacific Rim Hobby at the now-closed intersection of Oak Street and Railroad Avenue.
The city is behind two of the three ongoing projects along the waterfront” the $3.9 million esplanade construction and the $16.7 million first phase of the city’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) project, which will increase the city’s sewer capacity between downtown Port Angeles and the city’s wastewater-treatment plant about a mile to the east.
The third is a private, roughly $4 million endeavor that will install a new concrete pier for the MV Coho ferry and a new canopy under which vehicles entering and exiting the ferry will be inspected by Customs and Border Protection officers, said Rian Anderson, district manager of Black Ball Ferry Line, which operates the Coho.
“Ultimately, the job will probably be complete sometime in April,” Anderson said.
Some merchants along Railroad Avenue were under the impression the city’s esplanade project also was slated to be finished in April, though Nathan West, the city community and economic development director, said the estimated completion date has always been this summer.
Esplanade construction has kept the stretch of Railroad Avenue from the Black Ball Ferry Line dock west to Oak Street closed to vehicle traffic since October.
The esplanade project, part of the city’s larger $17 million waterfront transportation-improvement plan, will widen sidewalks on either side of West Railroad Avenue and add a concrete promenade extending out over the water with lighted walking and seating areas.
West said last week the esplanade work is on schedule to be completed in mid- to late summer, when the improved Railroad Avenue will be reopened to car traffic.
“Things are actually going very smoothly,” West said.
West said part of his job is keeping Railroad Avenue business owners abreast of how the construction will impact access to their storefronts, adding that he has been in particularly close contact with Scherer since his hobby shop abuts two separate city projects.
“We call ourselves Pacific Rim Hobby: at the corner of construction and construction,” said Scherer, who estimates a 20 percent drop in business compared with the same time in 2012 since Railroad Avenue was closed in the fall.
Most recently, crews with Ferndale-based IMCO General Construction opened up a gaping hole in the asphalt right outside Scherer’s shop — so close, in fact, that pedestrian traffic wanting to walk east on Railroad is diverted onto the wooden deck of Scherer’s white building with red trim.
On the fence surrounding the hole, Scherer has affixed rainbow-colored pinwheels to draw attention to a metal sign attached to the fence that reads “Pacific Rim Hobby OPEN,” printed in bold, black lettering on a white background.
Construction crews created the hole as part of the CSO project, which also has closed about a mile of the Waterfront Trail from in front of the Red Lion Hotel east to the city’s wastewater-treatment plant.
James Burke, the city’s CSO project manager, said the hole will allow crews to run new sewer and stormwater pipes underneath Oak Street, the southbound half of which will be closed to pedestrian and car traffic starting Monday until March 15.
Crews also will have the hole itself filled back in by March 15, Burke added.
Tom Curry, owner of the Barhop Brewery, which recently moved to a storefront along Railroad Avenue just east of Scherer’s shop, also thanked loyal customers for helping him through the disruption, adding that the brewery’s Facebook page has drawn some new faces.
Curry praised city staff for keeping him updated and looks forward to increased business once the improvement is finished.
“It would be great if they could finish earlier. That would be absolutely fantastic,” Curry said.
“But I think we’re going to have a really nice project when it’s done.”
Blow Hard Glass Gallery owner Paul Labrie said he closed his shop at 110 E. Railroad Ave. on Feb. 5 because of declining foot traffic and retail sales that started before the construction began, though he added that the work did hurt Christmas business.
“Whatever chance I had to make any more money during Christmas was shot,” he said.
He is hopeful the esplanade will bring more people downtown and thanked the city and his business partner, Bob Stokes, for giving him the opportunity to do business there for four years.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.