Long-term construction disrupts small-town business in Kent

Denver Collins

Tim O’Neil is a victim of circumstance.

He runs O’Neil’s, a drive-thru located near the corner of Lake Street and Second Avenue, right next to the closed-off Lake Street bridge repair project. Since the road closed in January, O’Neil has seen his sales drop dramatically as those coming from Brady Lake into Kent are detoured to state Route 59.

“As a small business owner, there’s only so much you can do to keep customers,” he said. “So when something like this happens for a long period of time, businesses can’t survive.”

Ironically, O’Neil had first-hand experience with this when he took over the business 15 years ago. His father started the drive-thru in 1988 and ran it himself until that point.

But in the mid 1990s, the city started making repairs to Lake Street, and that’s when he left the drive-thru business to his son.

“It put him into such debt that he was forced to go find a job somewhere else,” O’Neil said.

Now the problem has come full circle. O’Neil is struggling to keep his customers coming back because of the latest construction project on Lake Street. He’s tried a Facebook fan page, putting up signs and selling O’Neil’s T-shirts.

“You have to be willing to do everything to serve the customer’s needs. Nowadays that’s what it takes,” he said. “Hopefully you survive. Hopefully you make it through, or if you’re like me, you don’t have a choice, you just have to do it, no matter what it costs and no matter how it affects your life.”

The Lake Street project has been shortened due to phone calls O’Neil made to the County Engineer’s office. Portage County Assistant Engineer Scott Miller said the county is willing to work with small businesses when they have problems, but ultimately these projects must get done.

“We actually reduced the amount of time the bridge can be closed from 6 months to 5 months,” he said.

So O’Neil had to shift the way he does business, often working from open to close and trying to find avenues for cost reduction in every aspect of his business from phone bills to snow plowing. O’Neil’s was already suffering from the poor economy. Many of its regular customers have lost their jobs in the past year.

Also, there are more corporate gas stations coming into town, whose prices are impossible for a small business to compete with.

On top of all of that, there are now two bridge projects that will divert traffic away from his business. It’s all begun to weigh very heavily on O’Neil’s livelihood.

“I run a good business, an honest, clean business,” he said. “I didn’t create this problem; it was a problem created for me. I have a hard time dealing with the fact I didn’t do anything wrong, yet my business is suffering tremendously,” he said.

Sue Helming, owner of Digger’s Bar & Grille on North Mantua knows all too well about this struggle. She opened the restaurant more than 13 years ago in one of the busiest intersections in all of Portage County.

Now, with the construction of the Crain bridge project starting, Helming is worried her business could be seriously affected.

“I can tell with just the little bit of construction that they’ve done out here, I’d say my sales have practically dropped by half,” she said.

Helming is worried about how accessible her business will be during construction. She has had problems recently with the city putting road closing signs around her business, even as the roads stay open.

“There were many days they were working and they’d have my driveway blocked off, and I’d have to go ask them to open it up for me,” she said.

And with a project finish date of December, 2012, Helming will have a long road to recovery.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it closed me, to be honest,” she said. “I’m really concerned about it.”

The Crain/Fairchild Bridge Project is budgeted at $23 million, with $3 million coming from federal stimulus money and the rest from public funding sources and project partners.

The cost of the Brady Lake bridge repair is about $1.9 million with $1.125 coming from stimulus money, according to Miller. The project is expected to be completed by Memorial Day. The two projects are coordinated so that Crain will not close until Brady Lake reopens.

Contact public affairs reporter Denver Collins at [email protected].