By Alan Burke
---- — MARBLEHEAD — It’s this town’s version of the Big Dig, a $4.9 million project to improve drainage in the Pleasant Street area and limit the likelihood of ruinous flooding.
But it’s a project looked on with some concern by merchants, who worry that the enterprise could constitute a roadblock between them and their customers.
Concerns are particularly acute along the end of Atlantic Avenue where much of the disruptive roadwork will take place during the first phase of the project. That phase has begun and won’t end until November. Other streets will face similar problems in subsequent years.
“We hope to get it done in three years,” says Amy McHugh, director of the water and sewer department. Much of the work involves replacing outmoded culverts and pipes and will require digging up the street. The project will be done by Joseph Cardillo and Sons of Wakefield.
Town officials met with merchants last week to hear their concerns and to outline the process. “We don’t want to hurt the merchants,” says McHugh. Businesses will remain open throughout the process.
Every effort will be made to keep traffic flowing, she says, although at some point, for a brief period, the street becomes a dead end. More often traffic will be reduced to a single lane.
“It’s a major construction project going down a major street,” McHugh says, adding that police are “working very hard” to minimize the impact. Moreover, suggestions from business people — like posting more and better signs — are under consideration.
For all that, she points out, the project ultimately will benefit downtown merchants, because “flooding has hurt the businesses in the area.”
Tricia Brogna at Tony’s Pizza at the end of School Street is trying to make the best of it. “It has to be done,” she says. “If there are extenuating circumstances, we’ll adapt.”
Having been in business for 30 years, she believes, will help the business weather the storm. Loyal customers are less likely to be deterred by a snarl in traffic as the street is dug up. “Everyone’s biggest concern is the Fourth of July,” she adds, explaining that the holiday brings a lot of one-time customers. “But I’m sure it will work out.”
Opposite Hawkes Street on Atlantic Avenue, Ramon Hinson is skeptical. A mechanic at Phillips and Lee Auto Service, he’s already seen what the construction might mean as some work was recently done on the street in front of the shop.
“It went right by our building and no one could get in for two days,” he complains. “Obviously it’s going to hurt our business. People are not going to come down here.” He imagines the slowdowns, the lines of stalled cars and anticipates, “They’re going to go somewhere else.”
But he’s confident that his boss will do what needs to be done to keep going, including picking up cars for regular customers and bringing them to the shop — “That is if we can get out of here,” he says.
On the other hand, Hinson says, the business has already benefited from the project. When the contractor left a huge pile of long, yellow pipes on the property, they sent a bill for storage.
Nuggets jewelry store is smack in the middle of the project’s first phase, on Atlantic Avenue from School Street to Hawkes. Dave Cawthron is hoping for the best.
“We’re going to deal with it,” he says. “I think it’s going to be an off-and-on thing. And I am confident that the chief of police will look after us. After all, the merchants are the town.”
Cawthron is also keen on accommodating regular customers, declaring himself willing to go out and bring back to the shop anyone who wants to make the journey. He also expects to increase advertising online and in the newspapers.
“People are stressing over it,” he concedes. “I’m trying not to.”
Wife Sandra Burke, who owns Nuggets, is quicker to admit to misgivings about what will happen, however. She notes that 500 cars an hour pass the store now, and she wonders what will happen to all those vehicles as the street is being dismantled. “We’re all not real happy down here,” she says.
As for Shubie’s, the popular foodie destination, George Shube says his delivery service will continue to operate. Shube has been a leader among the merchants.
“No one disputes the project has to happen,” he says. “But Marblehead’s such a summer town.” Mortgages and other expenses won’t go away, he notes, and “we were looking forward to our summer volume.”
The ramifications of the work caught many unprepared and, consequently, merchants remain anxious.
As in so many things, where you stand on this problem depends heavily on where you sit. The Marblehead House of Pizza, according to co-owner Dimitri Zachariadis, sits on a corner where customers might more easily get access. “I think we lucked out,” he says. Further, he expects to stay busy with foot traffic.
“As long as the sidewalk is free we won’t have a problem.” In any case, he sees no point in complaining. “They already voted for it,” he points out, at Town Meeting in 2012.
“Something had to be done,” he adds with a shrug. “So what are you going to do?”