This summer, Glass Garden owner Judy Shumway has dealt with a tear-up across West Milwaukee Street that has turned a public lot where her customers once parked into a construction site for a new hotel.
And since April, Shumway and her customers have contended with a weeks-long closure of South River Street west of her stained-glass studio and shop in downtown Janesville.
The closure comes as the city converts one block of South River Street to a “festival street” as part of the ARISE downtown revitalization project.
Soon, Shumway and the 45 or so other businesses along West Milwaukee Street west of the river will wrestle with another closure—one that will disrupt traffic for months.
Starting Oct. 1, the arterial link between the east and west sides of downtown—the Milwaukee Street Bridge—will be gone. The aging bridge is being torn out and replaced, a $5.7 million project planned for years. City officials and a state contractor overseeing the work say the project will take about nine months to complete.
By late June 2019, the new Milwaukee Street bridge should reopen, allowing vehicle, foot and bicycle traffic to span the Rock River in the heart of downtown’s riverfront revitalization area.
So Shumway and West Milwaukee Street businesses brace for the bridge project and another one after that: a complete rebuild of West Milwaukee Street in 2020 or 2021.
Some shop owners and downtown business coalitions told The Gazette they’re working on strategies to stay visible to detoured motorists during the project.
But after months of construction, there’s uncertainty for those businesses.
Shumway said after street tear-ups started this year, she saw a 20 percent decrease in sales compared to last summer.
City Engineer Mike Payne said it’s likely South River Street won’t open to traffic until Oct. 12—a couple of weeks after the bridge project officially starts. It’s not clear how long the two projects and their closures could coincide.
Shumway said she’s not sure how customers might respond to detours that skirt around the closed bridge.
“I try to be positive about this. I try to stay positive. I want customers to stay positive, too, because I think all this work downtown—well, it’ll be beautiful when it’s done,” Shumway said. “But customers have had a terrible time parking and getting around this year. Everything, all these projects seem to be going on at once.”
Help and self-help
Emily Arthur, Downtown Janesville Business Improvement District manager, said representatives of the BID and Downtown Janesville Inc. have met with city officials and business owners in recent weeks.
She said West Milwaukee Street businesses west of the river are trying to “stay positive,” but some are concerned about the bridge closure.
“The bridge being out does affect all of West Milwaukee Street. The whole side. It’s not just core businesses near the bridge,” Arthur said. “All of West Milwaukee will be affected because, obviously, you won’t be able to get across the bridge there.”
Arthur said the BID and Downtown Janesville Inc. plan to help businesses weather the upcoming construction projects. Plans include signs along downtown side streets near the bridge closure that show directions to specific businesses and places to park.
Arthur also has tapped the Monroe Street Merchants Association for advice.
The Madison business coalition dealt with a construction project that left Monroe Street torn up most of this year.
Carol Schroeder, who owns Orange Street Imports on Monroe Street, is the association’s chairwoman. Her group prepared for the upheaval by setting up “survive and thrive” kits: sets of store coupons that offered special sales and incentives for customers to brave the Monroe Street tear-up.
Schroeder said her group got a $10,000 matching grant from the city of Madison for a marketing campaign.
Monroe Street businesses also got creative, she said. They hosted a “Hardhat Club” for kids—a special set of sales events that allowed families to bring their children, don hardhats and watch the construction crews work along Monroe Street.
She said such events are evidence of businesses working together to “keep things fun” during a construction project.
Throughout the project, Schroeder said, a coordinator from her group met weekly with construction crews to keep up to speed on the project and service interruptions it might cause.
Alicia Reid, who operates Raven’s Wish Gallery & Studio at the corner of West Milwaukee and South River streets, said she’s trying to bootstrap herself during the project.
Among other strategies, Reid is mailing post cards to her longtime customers to remind them of the bridge project and ask them to continue to patronize her shop.
Reid said about “80 percent” of her customers have a positive outlook on the heavy infrastructure work tied to ARISE. Private redevelopment that’s occurring in tandem, such as the Cobblestone Hotel project, seems to show evidence a revival is taking root.
“A lot of it is about perspective,” she said. “We’re trying to maintain an attitude of looking forward to what’s ahead. It’s a cool thing what’s happening in downtown Janesville, the improvements along the riverfront. We’re trying to say ‘just stick with us, because look at the direction we’re headed.’”
For downtown businesses weathering a slew of recent street tear-ups, an unforeseen breather might be coming.
The West Milwaukee Street reconstruction slated to roll out in 2020 could be put on the back burner for a year.
Payne said the low bid the state awarded for the bridge replacement was about $1.3 million higher than the city anticipated.
Because state and federal funding are capped, the city will have to add the $1.3 million overrun to the share it’s already paying.
Payne said between the bridge project’s cost and other “budget constraints,” it’s possible the West Milwaukee Street rebuild could be delayed until 2021.
Bids were higher mostly because the U.S. tariff on imported steel has increased costs for construction materials, Payne said. Other analysts say the tariff, and volatility tied to it, is creating greater risk for contractors, and that’s leading to a spike in large-scale construction bids.
Payne said the city in mid-August asked the state to move forward with the bridge replacement now, despite the sticker shock. He said if the state had re-bid the work, the project likely would have been delayed a year, and it’s likely the cost would increase.
The aging bridge, which also bears damage from a vehicle crash on its south railing, needs to be replaced now, he said.
For local traffic and those visiting downtown—5,700 to 6,000 vehicles a day, according to state traffic counts—it’s not clear yet which streets will be marked as the main detour around the bridge closure.
Payne and Director of Public Works Paul Woodard said the city first intended to detour traffic onto South Main Street to Court Street. From Court, people who wanted to access West Milwaukee Street would be directed to South Jackson Street.
The city converted Court Street to two-way traffic this summer in part to ready it as a detour for the bridge project.
Now, the city has put in a request to the state Department of Transportation to use Centerway as a designated detour.
Payne and Woodard said motorists likely aren’t accustomed to Court Street being a two-way street. Payne said Centerway—also designated as a federal highway—is better suited for higher traffic volumes and has safer left-hand turn access than Court Street.
Payne said the state won’t make a final call on a detour route until after the city and the state have a pre-construction meeting late this month.
He said motorists can use any open street to navigate around the bridge because there’s “no law” requiring people to use a specific detour.