Last Thursday Jim Edwards, owner of Bi-Lo Foods on Southwest Higgins, was headed to the bank for an emergency loan to keep the store running. Since the city started an $11 million construction project last spring, Edwards figures he’s been losing $2,000 to $2,500 per week because people can’t get inside to buy groceries.
In the aisles that day, employees out-numbered customers and at the cash registers, the only employee on duty had nothing to do. The parking lot was full of cars, but Edwards explained that they belonged to neighborhood residents cut off from their apartments across the street by construction.
At one time, Edwards employed as many as 100 people at the medium-sized grocery and enjoyed a steady flow of business that came from traffic headed into the South Hills, as well as commuters from the Bitterroot Valley by-passing the U.S. Highway 93 commercial strip via 39th Street on their out of town. But that all came to a halt when bulldozers tore up Southwest Higgins and 39th Street.
Today, Edwards has about 35 employees and a near empty store.
“The last year has been unbelievable,” Edwards says. “I’m 100-percent happy [the city] did it. This road needed it. But the way they shut down local businesses is a crime.”
However, when city officials planned the project, they had business owners such as Edwards and a previous construction debacle in mind, says Missoula city engineer Joe Oliphant. When the city expanded Reserve Street, for example, contractors attacked the whole length at once and forced traffic onto dirt and gravel for two years. So when city engineers called for bids on Southwest Higgins, they insisted the project be broken into seven independent two-month phases. They also planned detour routes through the adjacent neighborhood and kept feeder streets open.
The current project will add a storm drain network to a section of the city that is vulnerable to flooding. The entire watershed of Pattee Canyon and a section of the South Hills between Whitacker Drive and High Park Way drain into Pattee Creek. But the creek would not be able to handle a true gully wash if a warm rain were to follow a heavy snow, according to a report commissioned by city engineers.
Also, people living on the hillside would be trapped by flooded streets and, ironically, continued development will only make the problem worse because houses and pavement do not absorb runoff. Unfortunately, Bi-Lo Foods is positioned to suffer from any construction phase that inhibits traffic along the southern-most arterial of the city. Although Southwest Higgins has remained open to local traffic through all phases, the rough dirt and gravel surface, the presence of heavy machinery, and the obstacle course of orange cones have intimidated all but the most die-hard Bi-Lo shoppers. And when a two-month phase directly in front of the store turned into four months this summer, Edwards’ losses started to become unbearable.
In part, Edwards’ troubles began several years ago when he sold a parcel of land at the intersection of Southwest Higgins and Russell Street that soon became home to an Albertson’s grocery store twice as large as his. The deal, which appeared suicidal, was part of a larger plan. At the time, Edwards owned one other Bi-Lo store on South 3rd Street. He wanted to consolidate his businesses into a single specialty market called Trout Meadows. So this spring, Edwards sold off the inventory at both locations before closing the other store.
“My timing hasn’t been great,” says Edwards, who plans to soon convert the Bi-Lo on Southwest Higgins into Trout Meadows. “But everyone’s mojo works in a circle, you know. So it’s going to get better.”
Southwest Higgins is expected to be open through Hillview Way and Russell Street by mid-October. The first half from Pattee Canyon Road to Bancroft opened this fall. Construction phases scheduled for 39th Street for next year will not strand any businesses and during a two-day period this fall when the entire route was open Edwards saw a $2,000 jump in cash register receipts.
“I project $10,000 [in sales] immediately,” Edwards says. “But how long will it take me to earn back $75,000 to $100,000?”
Edwards isn’t alone in his predicament. Southwest Higgins includes other businesses that depend, like Bi-Lo, on convenient access for customers. There are also family homes, apartments and professional offices. Even regular customers went elsewhere during construction, laments dry cleaner Nancy Cole, who expects the road improvement to increase drive-by traffic in the long run.
The parking pockets, landscaped boulevards, center turn lane and sidewalks are all welcomed improvements, says florist Peter Tucker. But a sense of bitterness remains even though locals acknowledge the construction was necessary. Tucker estimates he lost $10,000 in two months while contractors worked in front of his store.
“That was most of my walk-in traffic,” Tucker says. “The people who came in were brave souls, dodging trucks and so on. Looking at it now and saying it’s a nice street doesn’t bring it back though.”