Business owners hoping Fairchild bridge brings customers
DANVILLE — It's tough starting a business, but just try it in the middle of a construction zone.
That's what Sandra Meeker, owner of Fuzzy's bar at 853 E. Main St., has struggled to do midway through two years of construction on the $23 million Fairchild overpass, which opens today after a dedication ceremony at noon at the intersection of Bowman Avenue and Fairchild Street.
"We are very happy about the bridge opening. It's been tough," said Meeker, who opened her business about a year ago and is throwing a bridge-opening celebration at Fuzzy's after the dedication, with food, a band and games.
Her building faces a section of Fairchild Street that has been closed to all traffic since at least July 2012. To make matters worse, about a month after she leased the building and opened as Fuzzy's, Meeker said, the residential street that provided alternative access to her business was shut down in construction, and customers could only access her place by the alley for about six months.
"We are buried back in here, back behind this construction, and if you don't know where we are at, you wouldn't know we were here," said Meeker, who's not alone.
The major project began years ago with planning, engineering and securing the funding, but the work got urgent when the city had to close the deteriorating Fairchild Street tunnel for safety. Construction finally began in July 2012 with demolition of the tunnel then moved to constructing a bridge up and over several rail lines.
The project has hampered access and movement for several businesses and many residences in the neighborhood and pushed more vehicle traffic onto other streets in the city, especially the other east-west corridors, Main and Voorhees streets and Winter Avenue.
And it has changed access for some property owners forever, like Jim & Jo's Bar and Grill, which is a few doors down from Fuzzy's and used to have a street in front of it. Jim & Jo's now directly faces a 30-foot tall concrete bridge wall that towers above the business. Customers now get there on a dead-end side street. Some residences nearby are the same.
"We know it's been tough," said Mayor Scott Eisenhauer. "Particularly for folks who live and work nearby."
Many other Danville businesses, residents, emergency personnel and drivers will also rejoice today at the reopening of Fairchild Street, because it's not only one of a few east-west corridors through the city, but also one that vehicles can use without getting stopped by the heavy amount of traffic on the rail lines that cut through the city.
Despite the headaches for her business, Meeker said she likes the new overpass. She also lives nearby and said she will attend the dedication and expects quite a few in the neighborhood will, too.
"I think it's nice. They did a good job," she said.
City Engineer David Schnelle said there are always a couple things you'd do differently after a project, but overall, he is very pleased. He said going over the rail lines rather than under was the most cost-effective solution. The bridge at its peak is 30 feet above several rail lines and offers a bird's-eye view of the city.
"It's pretty darn cool," Schnelle said.
The structure also includes a concrete shared-use path that's separate and protected from the driving lanes and which has already been getting some use. Schnelle said it's a 5 percent grade up and over, making for a good workout walking or biking the path. With the tunnel, there were no accommodations for pedestrians, and Schnelle said this path will keep walkers and cyclists safe and deter them from crossing the tracks below as they used to do.
Although the bridge opens to vehicles today, Schnelle said, there's still work that will continue on sidewalks, curbs and gutters in the construction zone.
Eisenhauer said he's thankful to Schnelle and other city staff for their work overseeing the project and for securing state and federal grants to pay for most of the project. Through a bond issue, the city's portion was $3 million of the total $23 million.
"I'm so excited," said Eisenhauer, who plans to be the first to drive over the new bridge following the ribbon-cutting with a special passenger, former Alderwoman Lois Cooper, who grew up in the neighborhood and was on the council when it voted in favor of the bonds to do the project. Eisenhauer said a city bus will also drive over along with city staff and others.
"It should be a nice little parade," he said.
More bridge work around corner
Come Monday, another bridge in the Danville area will be under construction.
Weather permitting, A.J. Walker Construction Co. will begin work on the bridge carrying U.S. 150 over the North Fork River and Ellsworth Park in Danville.
The Illinois Department of Transportation project includes removal and replacement of the expansion joints at each end of the bridge.
Traffic on U.S. 150 will be reduced to one lane in each direction. During the project, IDOT officials encourage drivers to observe all traffic-control signs.
The $225,000 project is expected to be complete in July. Drivers are advised to slow down and use extreme caution going through the work zone.