Spokane Journal of Business

Argonne sewer project disrupts stores’ traffic

Sewer construction season gives small-business owners a dose of summertime blues

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Six years ago, Bert McCollum thought shed found her corner. Abandoning the small, beauty salon she had operated from a remodeled residence near University City for 13 years, she bought a lot at the northwest corner of Mission Avenue and Argonne Road, and built the beauty salon and clothing boutique she had always wanted.

It seemed like a great location at the time, says McCollum, owner of Shear Illusions Ltd. It was a major investment, but things were working out pretty well until this spring.

That was when contractors working for Spokane County diverted the three southbound lanes of Argonne and the three northbound lanes of Mullan into a single lane in each direction between Sprague and Interstate 90. Initially, the work created bottlenecks that endured long past rush hour, and when the installation of sewer mains beneath both roadbeds began in earnest, the area took on the appearance of a war zone.

There were a couple of days when we were literally trapped here, says McCollum. You couldnt get in or out.

Although access to businesses within the construction zone has only rarely been disrupted entirely, business owners say their customers tend to avoid the area and often have resorted to parking elsewhere and negotiating their way along the torn-up roadbed on foot when they do make their way into their businesses.

People will go through anything to get their hair done, says McCollum, but sales in the boutique, which usually cover most of my overhead, are off about 40 percent.

For businesses flanked by Mullan and Argonne, the access problem can be even more severe. Its definitely affected our business, says Steve Harmon, sales manager at Spears Home Furnishings, at 1300 N. Argonne. We had an older couple who tried to come in the other day call and say they couldnt find a way to get in. It can be confusing, because even though you can usually get here, you cant always get into our lot the same way. There was a day last week you could only get in by going through the alley behind the store.

Harmon says walk-in customers have dropped off more than 25 percent.

We had a softening of maybe 10 percent in sales just because of local economic conditions before the construction began, he says. But our sales were down 25 percent in May and will probably be down about the same for June. Theres no reason to think that July will be any different.

Mark Stiltz, the countys project manager, says minimizing the impact of the sewer project work on businesses has been among the countys highest priorities.

We initially intended to do the intallations along Argonne and Mullan separately, says Stiltz, but we met with business owners early on and found most of them wanted us to do both at once and complete the work as quickly as possible.

Stiltz says one of the things the county has done to complete the work quickly is to provide a financial incentive for the contractor to complete the work before the target date. Conversely, if the contractor fails to meet the target date, financial penalties are incurred.

Weve tried very hard to work with business owners on this project, he said. If there are concerns we arent addressing, I would encourage them to call and let us know.

Harmon says Spears has responded to the disruption by emphasizing the stores in-home decorator and design services.

And I can tell you, as soon as we have better access to the store, were going to have one heck of a sale.

Mike Jones, who moved Spots Argonne Dry Cleaner to its current location at 1510 N. Argonne from the old Argonne Village Shopping Center almost two years ago, says his business is off about 15 percent from what it was before the road construction began.

If I look at where the business was in earlier years, it may be off an additional 10 percent from what I could normally expect this time of year. But none of the dry cleaners that I know of are doing any great shakes right now.

Jones says its clear that the road construction has hurt his business, but that he has no real means of discerning between the impact of the roadwork and the downturn in the local economy.

Unfortunately, when people start cutting back on spending, dry cleaning is one of those things they start to forgo, he says.

Not all of the problems the construction creates are strictly financial. Karen Dorsey, part owner and manager of a business office complex on the northeast corner of Mullan and Mission, says drivers taking unconventional and illegal approaches to circumventing the construction have created safety problems.

The first two days that Mission was closed, I had drivers racing through my parking lot trying to get to Mullan, she says. I was almost hit by one of them myself.

She says she tried in vain to talk with construction workers and find someone onsite from the county to help her deal with the problem. I finally just found a barricade and dragged it down the street myself, she says.

Although Dorsey says she has yet to lose any of the 15 tenants in her two-building office complex, she isnt likely to be able to lease any more space there until the construction work is done.

What I cant understand is why they wont finish this intersection, she says. Its a major intersection and the sewer is installed and hooked up. But the road is still torn up. I just wish theyd finish everything before they move on.

The sewer and road construction along the Argonne-Mullan corridor is being performed by Casey Construction, Inc., of Hayden Lake, under a $6.5 million contract. County officials have targeted July 31 as the completion date for the Argonne and Mullan portions of the contract, while the balance of the construction, including sewering and resurfacing Mission Ave. between Mullan and Herald, is to conclude by early October.

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