Since its outset in late 2010, the U.S. Route 30 widening project that runs from Harlem Avenue in to William Street in New Lenox has been billed as a boon for residents. The project, which turns the 8.5-mile stretch of road into a four-lane highway, will eliminate traffic problems and be an overall benefit to residents.
But no one mentioned the toll the construction would take on businesses up and down Rt. 30, especially in the unincorporated area just west of Harlem. That part of the work zone is dotted with tiny strip malls that have been adversely affected by the heavy construction being done.
As delays push the road work into its second summer, the owners of these Rt. 30 businesses continue to struggle financially, and some of them wonder if they'll even be around to see the construction finally complete.
"All of my customers are saying it'll be so beneficial," said Mary Bandera, owner of . "But I've probably lost half my business because of this."
Bandera doesn't hold back when she talks about the project that has drastically limited access to her small cafe that's been open since the early 1990s. Depending on the traffic patterns, customers can face a few challenges trying to pull into the side road to get to Caffé Milan.
"Grueling bull----. Can I call it that?" she said, adding that the construction has crippled any chance of cultivating new customers who now are using alternative routes to circumvent the roadwork. "It's destroying my walk-in business. … Last year, it was terrible. One of the worst years in nine years."
Bandera's saving grace has been her thriving catering business, which hits its busy season in the summer when she supplies food for weddings and graduation. She's also tried to offset the construction complications by placing signs in front of her restaurant, telling customers that she's still open.
And Bandera knows she's not alone in this struggle. She's spoken with the other nearby business owners and heard similar tales.
Lisa Sulmac, owner of , said her business has gone down 50 percent since construction started. Although she said the community has been supportive, Sulmac has had customers tell her that they're completely avoiding Rt. 30 so they don't have to deal with the aggravation of the construction traffic.
Like Bandera, Sulmac is trying to find ways to mitigate the financial damage to her business. She's been advertising more and putting together more special deals and discounts than she has in the past.
"It's pretty frustrating," Sulmac said. "It's been going on for a while. We're just waiting for it to finish."
Frustration, though, doesn't even begin to describe what Dennis Ash is feeling. Ash, along with his wife, Diane, owns a tattoo shop, , and adjoining liquor store, , along Rt. 30. To say Ash has strong opinions on the widening project is like saying … well, like saying that Rt. 30 construction is a slight inconvenience.
"These guys didn't come to talk to the businesses," he said concerning the Illinois Department of Transportation, which oversees the project. "There was no consideration for what the business owners needed. Small businesses are the backbone of the [community]. Where's our consideration? They don't care."
Ash said he has even had a few run-ins with the work crews during the project, telling contractors to move their equipment when they were blocking his entrance. In fact, he said he chased the foreman from Harlem Avenue to LaGrange Road in order to get a semi-truck out of his parking lot.
Guy Tridgell, a spokesman for IDOT, said he understands Ash's concerns and difficulties, and his agency has tried to stay in contact with businesses throughout the entire project through meetings and e-mails.
"We certainly understand construction can be a hardship," he said. "We try to keep access open and keep communication open … on the project. The longterm gain will outweight the short-term issues. … We make every effort to reach out to all the impacted businesses to let them know what's going on."
"When the roadway is complete it will be safer for their customers to navigate," Tridgell added. "It was a two-lane road with very few opportunities to turn into those businesses, and this project will remedy that."
Although the construction has had a small effect on the business at his tattoo shop, it's the liquor store that's taking the brunt of the construction downturn, Ash said. Liquor stores and outlets that sell alcohol are fairly common, so customers can easily find a convenient alternative, he said, adding that they'll even pay an extra 50 cents for that convenience.
"You know what happens to a business like that when people are inconvenienced?" Ash asked. "I'll give you one guess. They go out of business."
And that's just what he thinks some people in the community would like to see happen to the restaurants and shops in the unincorporated area of Rt. 30. Ash said he could envision that stretch of road turning into something Will County and village officials would be happier about, like a stretch of car dealerships.
Ash has had his two stores on Rt. 30 for about 17 years (the liquor store was a billiard hall until about five years ago), and he plans on weathering this construction.
"I hope I see an increase in business when it's all said and done," he said.
IDOT officials still say Rt. 30 construction will be finished by the end of this year, with some minor work being completed in 2013. Originally, the project was to be finished by this summer, but work delays have been caused by unforeseen difficulties, particularly when with the utilities in the area.
"It's not an unusual problem," Tridgell said. "We're changing the footprint of the road, and the utility lines need to be moved out of the existing right of way. It can be time-consuming. But once completed the remainder of construction unfolds fairly rapidly."
Ash, however, doesn't share IDOT's optimism concerning the project's completion. Formerly in construction himself, Ash said the work could continue for some time to come.
"Mark my words, the rate this thing is going? It's not even close [to being finished]," he said. "I've worked construction 22 years, done roads and bridges now and then. This is the worst I've ever seen a project managed. It's asinine."
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