By DENNIS SEID / Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
TUPELO — No more orange barrels to drive around, no more lane shifts, no more trouble getting in and out of parking spaces.
“Hallelujah,” said Pam Fair, a co-owner of Sparrows on Main, a boutique on East Main Street that opened in May 2014. Four months later, work began on the Elvis Presley Birthplace Trail.
The recently completed trail now seamlessly connects downtown Tupelo from Green Street, down Main Street and to the Birthplace, having added sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, landscaping, lighting and other enhancements along the route. East Main Street was expanded to five lanes as well, and the bridges were widened.
The multi-million-dollar project took about 20 months to complete, and at the groundbreaking ceremony in September 2014, Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association Executive Director Debbie Brangenberg warned that work would be “laborsome” at times. She and other officials also said patience would be needed at times, when construction would tie up parking and snarl traffic.
And they were right.
Business owners interviewed by the Daily Journal all complimented the new look along the route, described by many as the “welcome mat” to the city. While they’re thrilled the work is done, many said it would take time to recover from lost business caused by the construction work.
Fair said Sparrows managed to survive due to the loyalty of customers who stuck with them and zig-zagged through the traffic barrels when needed.
“We’re hoping things pick up now that construction is over,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want this to sound negative, because we’re thankful we finally have a turn lane.”
Traci Lewis, co-owner of Blairhaus and Farmhouse in downtown Tupelo, said business owners had to be more creative in attracting customers to their shops and restaurants while construction went on.
“It was bumpy,” Lewis said. “I don’t think we were probably as prepared as we needed to be. However, I think the work was absolutely needed; it was necessary in order for all of us to thrive in the future.”
Brangenberg said she understands the frustration business owners felt during the construction. She said a project of its scope is complex with many moving pieces, and sometimes things didn’t go as well as planned.
“There were 14 subcontractors involved, for example,” she said. “If one of them had a delay, then it through the whole thing off. We didn’t have much of that, but coordinating that was a full-time job.”
There were delays and minor mishaps along the way. While none were major, they did cause unwanted disruptions at times.
One of the most-often asked questions was why some or most of the roadwork couldn’t have been down at night.
Brangenberg said the contractor had originally thought it could do that, but with additional lights, equipment and other expenses that the work would have required, the cost of the project would have increased as well. When bids were unsealed in June 2014, Key Construction had the lowest bid at $11.5 million; Century Construction was the next lowest at $12.3 million.
Project officials say they did what they could to inform the public and businesses about the project, with regular updates.
But while the “pardon the progress” signs and updates were helpful for some, they also served as a deterrent for other potential shoppers and diners who opted to avoid the area, some businesses say.
“Front-door” parking is a premium, especially downtown, but they were temporarily eliminated with the work. Nearby parking lots offered an alternative, but many customers simply don’t want to or aren’t used to taking a few extra steps.
Spread over nearly two years, those moves cut into the cash flow and bottom line of businesses.
Mitch McCamey, the co-owner of Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, was quite vocal about his frustration with the project’s progress at times. He admitted he was quite passionate about stating his case, but said he learned from the experience.
“Really, I don’t think anybody is as happy now about it being finished as I am, because we’re also open at night,” he said. “It was rough. Anytime you got though that long of construction, you definitely see the traffic change. Plus, I’m a young restaurant, a young business that probably doesn’t cash flow as well as other businesses.”
McCamey said he’s mellowed, now understanding that, “you can’t control other people’s projects. If you’re going to be in a small business, as least in my perspective, you like to have that control and voice your opinion. I think for a while I had the idea that you could be for a project but be against the way it’s happening. I think now I realize I probably don’t know enough about it to really comment on how it went.”
Back to business
McCamey and other business owners on the Birthplace Trail are hopeful that the work will do as it intended: draw more people who will spend more time – and money – while they’re in the area.
Shop owners and restaurateurs are looking to make up from missed sales due to construction during the lucrative Christmas holiday season.
Larry Ezell, who owns Tupelo Battery across East Main Street from Sparrows, said the payoff will be coming.
“I love the final look of everything,” he said. “We really needed that turn lane. Now you can pull in an feel comfortable and not get run over. It was money well-spent.”
The project was funded by a combination of federal, state and local money. About $2.3 million came from the Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, via the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which awarded a transportation enhancement grant. The City of Tupelo’s 20-percent match of the grant totaled $575,000, and the remainder of the project cost was paid through the citizen-funded Major Thoroughfare Project.
Ezell said he was glad the work was finished, and he thinks East Tupelo will benefit with the traffic flowing better.
He had high praise for the contractors, whom he said went out of their way to keep the entrance and exit of his business clear.
And Lewis reiterated she welcomed the work downtown.
“Again, I’m very grateful that it’s open,” she said. “It’s very beautiful and I think it will add a lot to downtown. But it’s going to take some time recover, and I think we need a lot more promoting of all the wonderful things we have in downtown Tupelo, especially with all the work that’s been done.”
An apologetic McCamey added, “It’s easy to sit on the outside and point fingers. They got the plan, they secured the money and they built it. I had to struggle in the process of it whether I liked some of it or not. I personally learned a lot – and I never want to go through it again. But I also want to say this: since the work has been done, our numbers have been great.”
Said Brangenberg of the project’s completion: “It showed perseverance. This project took 12 years from the original talks of what to do to the point of what we ended up with. . I don’t think everybody realized the complexity of the project. But with so many moving parts, I think it went unbelievably well.
“What may not seem logical to us as laymen is necessary in a construction scenario. They tried to keep moving forward.
“I know for the businesses, it seemed like forever, and it was to me some days as well. But overall, I think it went well . and we hope to see great benefits.”
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