Retailers bemoan renovation timing
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times,
INVERNESS -- Downtown merchants typically do a year's worth of business in just six months, using the revenue from the busy winter season to keep their boutiques and restaurants open during the lean summer months.
Not surprisingly, the busy season runs from October to April, during which seasonal visitors flock to Citrus County and holiday shopping reaches its peak.
So the merchants who filled the Inverness City Hall on Tuesday evening were disappointed when the City Council voted 3-2 to start a five-month downtown renovation project in August, effectively turning Courthouse Square into a construction site during their bread-and-butter months.
"We're going to have a year and a half of summer business because the snowbirds won't be able to get to us," Winston Perry, president of the New Inverness Olde Towne Association, said in an interview Wednesday.
"I understand their desire to get it done, and we're all anxious to get it done," Perry said. "But I don't know who will survive it. Some people will, and maybe some won't."
The $825,000 project to bring old-fashioned street lamps, faux brick crosswalks and more trees to the downtown area was supposed to start this past January and last just 120 days, minimizing the impact to merchants.
But it took longer to design and engineer the project than officials expected, pushing back the earliest start date to Aug. 15. The expected duration of construction went from four to five months, and unforeseen complications could stretch out the project even further.
"What you think will take six months will usually take 60 days longer," project consultant Bud Clark told the council Tuesday.
Not wanting to delay the project any further, council President Bob Plaisted and council members John Sullivan and Dick Kaufman voted to start construction Aug. 15.
"I think if we can get it done quick enough and fast enough, the merchants won't be harmed to a great deal," Plaisted said.
"You're not going to be shut down," Sullivan told the merchants. "I think the sooner, the better. Let's get going."
Council members Jacquie Hepfer and Ted Stauffer voted against the motion, saying it would be easier on the merchants to postpone construction until spring.
"Having been a merchant in this city, I know the importance of capitalizing on six months of the year for the 12 months," Stauffer said.
After paying for the design and engineering of the project, the city will have about $675,000 to spend on construction, city administrative management assistant Frank Blackwelder said.
David Butcher, an engineer with Lakeland-based BCI Engineers & Scientists, said those funds would cover the improvements along Old Main Street and around Courthouse Square, estimated between $665,000 and $690,000. Lighting and trees planned for Pine Avenue and N Apopka Avenue, ending at Dampier Street, will have to wait until the city can find more funding, he said.
In addition to the timing of the project, merchants were troubled to hear that the sidewalks would be torn out for most of the duration of the project. City Manager Frank DiGiovanni tried to get assurances from the engineers that sturdy wooden walkways would provide access to all of the shops.
"It's got to be of a quality where people will want to come down there," DiGiovanni said. "It can't be planks on dirt."
The merchants said they expect some inconveniences but are eager to see the renovations come to life. They just wish the project could have been scheduled around the busy season that keeps their businesses going.
"If you do all this and lose the merchants, what have you gained?" asked Judi VanDermark, owner of the Towne and Country wooden furniture store.
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