Businesses say bridge replacement causes major problems
MAHOMET — For years, giving directions to Uncle Buck's Bar and Grill has been simple: It's just north of the bridge on Lake of the Woods Road.
But now that location is a liability, as Uncle Buck's and other businesses in the shadow of that bridge have, in effect, become part of a construction site, blocked off by barricades as crews work to replace the structure.
And as the bridge has come down, so has business.
"My dad opened the bar 24 years ago, and it's killing me that I'm going to lose it on my watch," said Teresa Eichelberger, Uncle Buck's owner.
The road closed for construction on Aug. 12, blocking access from U.S. 150 to businesses and homes on the north side of the bridge. Crews from Stark Excavating are slated to complete the bridge replacement project in August 2014 — a year from now.
Eichelberger and owners of several of the businesses near the bridge site met at Mimi's Antiques and Uniques on Lake of the Woods Road recently to assess the damage and offer support.
Business since the bridge closed for construction has been "way worse than we could've imagined," said Eichelberger. She said that her monthly revenue is less than half of what it was before the bridge closure.
"On Aug. 12, it was like a light switch just went off," said Michelle Morfey, owner of Mimi's.
She's started doing part-time work to support the business, while her husband Todd takes on more side jobs.
Ronda Robinson, who owns R&S RV Sales and Service with her husband Gary, was more blunt.
"Our business is done," she said.
R&S — a fixture in Mahomet for over three decades — has been struggling ever since the Illinois Department of Transportation reduced the bridge to one lane in August 2011, making it difficult or impossible for recreational vehicles and fifth-wheel trailers to navigate the narrow roadway.
A reduction in traffic has also reduced the number of drivers who take a turn through the lot to look at new vehicles, she said. At this point, nothing short of a new, fully open bridge can bring their business back to what it was before the closure — and that's a year away.
One of the biggest problems, the business owners say, is the staggered set of barricades that block them off from the rest of Lake of the Woods Road. Signs read "No through traffic," which many drivers interpret as "no traffic at all."
Stopping at orange barricades is "psychological, it's what we've been taught," Morfey said.
Kensil Garnett, project implementation engineer for the state Transportation Department's District 5, said his agency is still actively discussing ways to configure the signs and barricades to better communicate that the businesses near the bridge are still open.
He said that he'd heard the concerns from business owners and that the department is willing to work with them on this and other issues.
"Nothing falls on deaf ears," he said.
Rubbing shoulders with construction equipment and debris is another problem. Eichelberger said she came to work one Friday to find a large pile of dirt taking up much of her parking lot. Another time, her marquee sign had been moved so that it blocked the entrance to the lot.
The project has also cut phone and Internet connections for hours at a time, crippling credit-card readers and ATM machines, the business owners said.
R&S and Mimi's Antiques attracts buyers from across the state and beyond, making it a challenge to guide non-locals through the maze of construction.
Eichelberger has a different problem: her local competitors are thriving, she said, as patrons look for a more easily accessible location to have a beer. She's even started closing early on nights when there are no customers, and even some of her regulars have disappeared.
But she's hopeful that good food will keep customers coming — especially the bar's Friday fish fries.
The Transportation Department put up green signs on U.S. 150 and Lake of the Woods Road, directing motorists to the businesses near the bridge, but Morfey, Eichelberger and Robinson say that they haven't been very effective. When they first went up, several of them pointed drivers in the wrong direction entirely.
They said they'd like to see the set of barricades blocking off Lake of the Woods Road in front of their businesses moved, or signage that more clearly indicates that that section of road is open to drivers heading to their businesses.
Transportation's Garnett added that it's early in the project, and that he's optimistic that some of the difficulties will be ironed out as work goes on.
The contractors echoed those sentiments.
"It's a tight site with not a lot of places to turn around and park," said Chadwick Eaton, project superintendent for Stark Excavating.
But "we're trying to make sure we're accommodating everybody, so the traffic can get in and out," he added. He also said that he anticipates that the site will "quiet down" in a month or so, as the focus shifts from roadwork to erection of the new bridge.
Even as they struggle, the business owners said they understand that the bridge needs to be replaced and that workers are doing the best they can to keep the process moving.
"Do I think the guys are working as fast as they can? I do," Eichelberger said. She noted that some workers on the site come in for lunch, especially those with local ties.
She and Morfey said they were grateful for the customers who've stuck with them during the hassle of construction. And they said they're looking forward to having a new bridge.
But they don't know if they'll be around to see it.
If business doesn't improve, "we'll have a beautiful bridge, but it'll be a ghost town out here," Morfey said. "Please remember us, please come see us," she added. "Because if you don't, we won't be here."