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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Business owners: Route 82 reconstruction would upend livelihoods

    Traffic moves through the intersection of Asylum and West Main streets in Norwich Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. Sign Professionals and All the Right Moves dance studio, at left, are among the businesses on Route 82, West Main Street, that will be affected by the state Department of Transportation’s plan to install roundabouts at multiple intersections. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Traffic moves past Sign Professionals through the intersection of Asylum and West Main streets in Norwich Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. Sign Professionals and All the Right Moves dance studio, at right, are among the businesses on Route 82, West Main Street, that will be affected by the state Department of Transportation’s plan to install roundabouts at multiple intersections. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    The state Department of Transportation is proposing to acquire five entire properties along Route 82 for the first phase of a controversial reconstruction project that would include roundabouts at the intersections with Asylum, Mt. Pleasant and Osgood streets. In addition to the five full-property acquisitions, Phase 1 would require 44 partial acquisitions of properties along the route.

    Norwich ― David McDowell makes his living designing and printing signs, and now he is printing one designed to save his living.

    The state Department of Transportation’s controversial proposed roundabouts on Route 82-West Main Street would demolish his and four other buildings.

    So, when opponents asked him to make, “No Roundabouts” signs to protest the $20 million project, McDowell was skeptical that it would be effective, but went to work as he would with any business order.

    On Thursday, McDowell sent a design to Mayor Peter Nystrom, also a strong opponent of the project. Residents and business owners also asked for signs.

    “I’m a professional sign maker,” he said, “so sure, I can make the signs.”

    But McDowell said it might be too late, now that the City Council on Sept. 6 voted 4-3 to allow the DOT to proceed with advanced design work.

    Design work is 30% complete for Phase 1, from Fairmount to Dunham Street with roundabouts at Asylum, Mt. Pleasant and Osgood streets. Project officials next will contact owners and businesses slated to be acquired to begin negotiations. Design work for Phase 1 is expected to be done by fall of 2024, DOT spokeswoman Shannon King said.

    McDowell said he has no complaints about the DOT project team that has presented plans at public meetings and have kept in touch with property owners. But McDowell said the state’s acquisition process is flawed and unfair. The state’s fair market value does not measure a lifetime of work, sacrifice and even retirement plans by small business owners.

    “My whole life is in this business,” he said Thursday. “I started in my basement with $1,200.”

    McDowell leased the building at 303 West Main St. and then bought it. To retire, he planned to sell the business, and lease the building to the business.

    “This building was my 401k,” he said. “The state doesn’t take that into consideration.”

    Next door, Dayna Gallivan expressed similar frustrations at the prospect of losing her livelihood. She started All the Right Moves Dance Studio 33 years ago and bought the building at 299 West Main St. 28 years ago. Her students range in age from 3 to 18, and she said families love her location and have never complained about the traffic hazards that prompted the state to propose the reconstruction.

    “I would never be able to afford to move to someplace new on that strip,” Gallivan said. “You would have to charge too much for dance lessons. We’re a small dance studio, family atmosphere. Moms like to drop the kids off and go shopping for a little while.”

    Like McDowell, Gallivan said her building is her retirement plan, either to sell it or lease it to a new business. She will put a “No Roundabouts” sign in her window. She said the DOT should try a median divider, left turn lanes, speed bumps or other less aggressive measures.

    “I just feel whatever they’re going to give me isn’t going to be enough for me to relocate,” Gallivan said. “I just feel they’ve got a plan and they’re going ahead with it and not taking into consideration our little town of Norwich.”

    Five properties are slated for full acquisition in the first phase: the now vacant former Strange Brew pub at 297 West Main St. , All the Right Moves Dance Studio next door at 299 West Main St., Sign Professionals at 303 West Main St., Xtra Mart/Shell gas station at 564 West Main St., and the building at 454 West Main St. that houses Garage Barbershop and an upstairs apartment.

    The short, private Crane Avenue across from Osgood Street also would be acquired and converted into a city street once the project is completed.

    DOT officials anticipate the need for 44 partial acquisitions along Phase 1. The roadway would be reduced to one travel lane in each direction with a median divider to prevent left turns, a 5-foot-wide bicycle lane and reconstructed sidewalks.

    Phase 2, which is still at “concept level,” would require additional properties and would run past New London Turnpike to Salem Plaza. Together, the project would replace seven traffic lights with six proposed roundabouts.

    Starting over

    Jalal Ahmad, manager of the Xtra Mart/Shell gas station and convenience store at the corner of West Main and Dunham streets, said he has worked there since January 2019.

    Ahmad said it took a while after the owner bought the station in 2015 to build up a loyal customer base. At first, business was slow, he said. Now, on a late weekday afternoon, almost nonstop he juggles gas purchases, lottery ticket orders and redemptions and snack, cigarette and vape product purchases.

    “We’ve been nice to customers, and they keep coming,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to go somewhere else. We know the people. We’re used to them. To go someplace else, it’s going to be starting over again.”

    Ahmad said he understands the road is dangerous. His car was struck once by someone turning left who did not see him coming.

    DOT officials cited state statistics that showed from 2017 through 2021, an average of 100 crashes per year with 35 injuries have occurred on the 1.3-mile stretch. About 40% have occurred in areas without traffic signals, and 60% at the seven signaled intersections.

    “Left-turning vehicles frequently create back-ups in the left lane, contributing to weaving and high crash rates,” the DOT informational brochure on the project stated.”

    Along with the nickname, “Crash Alley,” the commercial strip from I-395 to downtown has been called “the Golden Mile” as the best place for a business.

    Lorenzo Paulino and Luis Jimenez, partners of Garage Barbershop at the intersection of West Main and Osgood streets, said business has been “100% better” since they moved from Franklin Street three years ago. The building has parking and easy access at the Osgood traffic light.

    Paulino said they were vaguely aware of the proposed Route 82 reconstruction project when they moved but did not know if it would come to fruition. Both said they are “so sad” at the prospects of moving.

    “I’m thinking about everything,” Paulino said, “where I would go, my customers and everything.”

    Both live in Norwich and want to keep their shop in the city.

    “It’s sad, because this is a good place,” Jimenez said. “We’re comfortable here. My customers like it here. It’s very busy here, a good area.”

    The City Council has enlisted its economic development agency, Norwich Community Development Corp. to assist the businesses displaced by the project and the many others that face years of construction disruptions. Phase 1 is scheduled to begin in spring of 2025 and be completed by fall of 2026 ― a schedule business owners called overly optimistic. Phase 2 construction is scheduled to start in 2027.

    NCDC President Kevin Brown said he is working on ways to assist with relocation, renovation of new spaces, capital costs and possible grants to businesses that suffer loss of revenue during construction.

    City officials already have identified 16 vacant properties. Brown said if any of the displaced businesses want to relocate to those spots, NCDC might be able to assist beyond what the state negotiates with displaced business owners.

    NCDC has $1.5 million in the city’s American Rescue Plan Act grant money for the Norwich Revitalization Program. Part of the program provides grants to prepare vacant space for a new business.

    Brown said he will pursue state grants through the new Community Investment Fund to assist Route 82 businesses. He will ask the state Department of Economic and Community Development to give this area priority for funding, because of the road construction disruptions.

    “If we can piece together what the state is offering in assistance and compensation,” Brown said, “and amend that with ARP allocation to help make a place inhabitable, we might be able, in best case make it cost-free, or at least at minimal cost to the business.”

    As for construction disruptions, Brown said he would ask if the state can mirror a grant program recently unveiled by Gov. Ned Lamont that compensates restaurants, wineries and hospitality businesses that suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Department of Revenue Services will pay $7,500 to $49,999 to businesses that show revenue losses during the pandemic.

    “We could take a look at that,” Brown said. “We can’t promise we can help them overcome the entirety of whatever business impact they have. But if the state Department of Revenue Services can help us figure it out, then we can work on some form of retroactive business assistance,” Brown said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

    Fact box:

    The state Department of Transportation’s preliminary design plan for Phase 1 of the Route 82-West Main Street reconstruction project calls for acquiring five properties plus the short private road, Crane Avenue. Another 44 partial acquisitions could be needed along the route.

    Five properties slated to be acquired:

    • 454 West Main St.: Garage Barbershop and upstairs apartment.
      Owner: Ebadath Chowhoury and Miah Suruj of Norwich.
      Building: 2,544 square feet. Land 0.24 acres.
      Appraised value: $166,600.
      Assessed: $116,600.
    • 565 West Main St.: Xtra Mart/Shell gas station/convenience store.
      Owner: Drake Petroleum Co., Inc. of Branford.
      Building: 1,900 square feet. Land 0.53 acres.
      Appraised value: $808,000.
      Assessed: $565,800.
    • 303 West Main St.:Sign Professionals.
      Owner: Sign Pro Properties LLC of Norwich.
      Building: 2,885 square feet. Land 0.31 acres.
      Appraised: $305,600.
      Assessed: $213,900.
    • 299 West Main St.All the Right Moves Dance Studio.
      Owner: Gallivan Norwich Holdings LLC of Preston.
      Building: 1,724 square feet. Land: 0.09 acres.
      Appraised: $206,900.
      Assessed $145,000.
    • 297 West Main St.: Vacant, former Strange Brew Pub.
      Owner: Xin Yuan LLC of Norwich.
      Building: 2,463 square feet. Land: 0.36 acres.
      Appraised: $296,200.
      Assessed: $207,300.
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