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Friday, January 25, 2013
First there came the City Market Building project, a multimillion-dollar rehab of the market area’s jewel. While it was under way, the market area was a mess.
Depending on your perspective, that either vastly improved the aging food court or it robbed the place of its character and soul. It pushed out some longtime and popular tenants, but now we have some new (and good) ones.
During that came an underground gas lines upgrade. That discouraged even more foot and car traffic for a while , adding greater hiccups and stress to market area businesses and vendors.
Next came the Center in the Square project. That building has been mostly empty since 2011, and the work there has pushed around a bunch of the market’s indoor and outdoor tenants. It should be done by May.
With all they’ve had to put up with in recent years, the business folk who rely on the market for their livelihoods have been eagerly awaiting the end to 2 1⁄ 2 years of disruptions. But they’re finding out finality can be an elusive thing.
Now another project is on the horizon, with a new scope and schedule that will exacerbate the disruptions and drag the work out for even longer, during spring and early summer, their high season.
It’s a pedestrian plaza on both sides of Market Street outside Center in the Square. Its construction will eliminate 24 short-term parking spaces at the market’s core, although the city intends to replace those with more free parking spaces nearby.
The train already has left the station on whether this should be built, along with underground storm water system and electrical upgrades that have pushed back the project’s time frame and taken its cost from $250,000 to $600,000 in a few short months.
When it’s going to happen is what has some merchants and farmers up in arms. Originally, the plaza work was slated for early January through March 15, their least busy time of year. Now it’s going to begin in March and last through June.
One merchant who’s upset is Vicki Harwell , who has owned the Blue Ribbon Boutique on Market Street for 15 years. She says St. Patrick’s Day is the launch of the busy season.
“I’m afraid it’s going to put some people out of business,” she told me. “We’ve been disrupted for years. Sure, it’s going to be nice. But some of us are going to be gone.”
Another is vendor Janet Walter, owner of Walter’s Greenhouse .
“I do all my business in four months. That’s when I make my money. And unfortunately, those are the months,” she said.
On Wednesday, The Gift Niche’s sales totalled $10, said owner Laura Duckworth . She would have preferred the city be building the plaza now, rather than in the spring.
“It’s the timing that shocks us,” said Mark Woods , whose family has sold plants and vegetables on the market for four generations. He ordered plants last September for spring and now he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to sell them.
Eric Dresser , the owner of Calhoun and Kipp gift shop at 216 Market Street, said 2012 was his worst year of business in his nine years on the market. He attributes that to a decline in foot traffic caused by the Center in the Square’s construction.
“But this somehow went from a simple two- to three-month project done January to March to at least a four-month project not even starting until March, finishing in early summer. Yes, I feel a bit cheated and lied to. It’s kind of like a punch in the stomach.”
Some other issues with the project are up in the air. Where are the outdoor vendors going to move to during the plaza’s construction? That’s not quite clear yet.
Exactly where are the new stalls going to be? Will the tables be fixed, or folding? What kind of new awnings will replace the old ones over the stalls? Those don’t have definite answers right now — and the project goes out to bid on Sunday.
But one thing is clear: The heart and soul and charm of the 120-year old market area depend on the vendors and merchants. And they can only take so much.
That’s why in the coming months I’d encourage you to head down there, and spend some money with them, to help keep them afloat. Slap them on the back and tell them you’re with them.
“We understand where they’re coming from,” Downtown Roanoke Inc. interim President Steve Musselwhite told me Wednesday. “I think this is going to be a positive thing.”
I hope so, because the merchants and vendors I’ve talked to are scared.
If they go out of business, or pick up and move elsewhere in disgust, what’s going to happen to our famed City Market area?
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