Road construction frustrating downtown business owners

Downtown construction is always an inconvenience but this year it’s ruffled a few more feathers.

The 500 block of Central Avenue has been closed for several weeks as part of a multi-phase project to reduce pooling water downtown and improve drainage. Last year, similar work was done in the 400 block and next year the project moves to the 300 block, according to city engineering.

This year, United Materials won the contract and began working in the area around Aug. 11 to install new storm inlets and curb and gutter on Central between 5th and 6th streets.

Most of the block has been closed since then even though last week, virtually no work was done on the street, according to business owners on the block.

Earlier this week, Alison Fried, owner of Dragonfly Dry Goods, contacted The Electric and said that in the nine days prior, she’d only seen about six hours of work.

The contract requires 50 hours of work per week, according to the city, but the contractor is still within the required completion time so far.

Jesse Patton in city engineering said that United had finished work in one part of the block early but wasn’t ready to move into the next section yet, but didn’t move the roadblock in the meantime.

Patton said that United is working within the letter of their contract, but that the city always asks contractors to conscientious of businesses in situations like this.

Fried said that since the roadblock was installed, she was down 142 customers and more than $7,000 in sales despite the various construction sale promotions she’s been offering.

Patton said the contractor for last year’s phase on the 400 block was MRTE and when they weren’t doing work or were able to move equipment, they’d open the road for downtown traffic.

The construction would require the closure of at least one lane of traffic on 5th and 6th Streets North, but the contract required the contractor to maintain a minimum of a four-foot wide pedestrian path in front of businesses at all times and to leave half of the streets open to vehicular traffic when feasible, according to a staff report from a July City Commission meeting.

The Electric has not yet been able to speak with the project manager for United Materials about the lag time despite several calls.

The project was presented at the May 24 Downtown Development Partnership meeting and the Downtown Great Falls Association 2017 event calendar was used when determining the construction schedule.

Weekly meetings have been held downtown for project updates, but Fried said United Materials hadn’t been attending those meetings until Wednesday.

Patton said United Materials did approach the city to change the contract and allow for closure of the entire block so they could finish the project faster, but wouldn’t guarantee a quicker completion, so Patton and the city wouldn’t remove fines associated with late completion. They discussed some options but weren’t able to reach an agreement, Patton said. The next week, there was minimal work done on the street.

Fried said this could be a learning opportunity in contractors seeing the impact their work has on businesses and to the city to consider tougher fines for any delays or more enforcement on opening portions of the block.

“We knew it was going to be inconvenient,” Fried said, but the full road closure was problematic. “They definitely did not do any service to us.”

The work is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 11 and Fried said the United Materials representatives in attendance at a status meeting on Wednesday said they would be finished before that date. She said they had a double crew working on the street Wednesday.

Pedestrian access remains open, but the road closure is affecting other businesses on the block as well. Dragonfly is close to the corner of Central and 5th Street, but others are further in like Amazing Toys, Jumping Monkeys, Lobby Bar and Maria’s Mexican Restaurant.

Dave Campbell, owner of Amazing Toys, posted on Facebook this week that, “August is a prime business month for Downtown Great Falls and we welcome the improvements to drainage, but to leave the street blocked for over a week for no apparent reason is not acceptable.”

According to the city, the curb and gutter has settled in multiple locations along Central Avenue causing standing water after storm events. This phase of the project includes installing six new inlets and replacing about 303 feet of curb and gutter at multiple locations, and the installation of about 280 feet of new main. The project also includes the installation of an inlet on 5th and on 6th Street North.

Two bids were received for the project and United Materials submitted the lowest bid at $107,837. The other bid was $169,912 from Falls Construction. Funding for this project comes from the Storm Drain Capital Fund.