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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Chuck Bair, owner of the Marathon gas station at Winchester and Lower Huntington roads, says construction at the intersection is killing his business. He says he used to get 1,200 customers a day, but now he’s lucky to get 500.

  • The construction on Lower Huntington Road has slowed business at the Marathon station Bair owns and at the Penguin Point restaurant across Winchester Road.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:39 am

“I’m dying on the vine here”

Frank Gray

Chuck Bair can sum up in two words what it’s like to run your own business.

It’s tough.

For years, Bair ran the Burger Dairy Store on Fairfield Avenue on the city’s south side. He was robbed eight times, but none of the robbers was ever caught. There were the drive-offs and the shoplifters. One night, a would-be robber or robbers drove a truck through the side wall of the convenience store in an effort to steal the ATM inside. They didn’t get it, but they made a mess.

Bair finally sold the Fairfield Avenue store and settled in at a Marathon station at Winchester and Lower Huntington roads, where he adopted prepay to prevent the drive-offs.

In the past few weeks, though, Bair has been facing the biggest threat to his business yet – road construction.

About seven weeks ago, workers put up barricades, essentially closing northwest traffic at the intersection, and started digging up concrete as part of road reconstruction.

People traveling east on Lower Huntington Road couldn’t get to Bair’s store, and few people bothered to take Winchester Road to his store because there was a big sign on the other end that said the road was closed.

The result is that business has plummeted. Bair said he used to get 1,200 customers a day. Now he’s lucky to get 500, he said. He estimates that he’s lost $200,000 in business since the work started.

And it’s only going to get worse. The center lane on Lower Huntington has been poured, but it has to cure. Next, the north lane on Lower Huntington will be torn out, meaning that no one on Lower Huntington will be able to get to his store at all. His only customers will be the ones who ignore the "road closed" sign on Winchester.

"I’m dying on the vine here," Bair said.

So are his employees. Their hours have been cut. One employee has worked only a couple of days in the past three weeks, Bair said.

Then there’s Penguin Point. People can get to the restaurant by turning onto Lower Huntington off Fairfield Avenue, but they can’t go back the way they came, and they don’t venture down Winchester.

Manager Sue Tracy says her business is down about 50 percent.

"It’s just killing me," Tracy said. "I should be gearing up and training staff for summer, but I can’t." There’s no sense in hiring staff to train them when there’s no business, she says. So she’s there 14 hours a day, seven days a week, "wiping empty tables."

What worries Bair and Tracy is that once customers find out what a headache it is to get in and out of the businesses, they’ll just quit coming. They’ll develop new travel behaviors and go to different places. Once the roadwork is done – it’s supposed to take until June 30 – the customers will be gone forever.

"It’s the new normal," Tracy says. "They’re not coming back. That’s what I’m afraid of."

The two just wish the project would be finished quickly, and they feel the city feels no concern for the damage being done to their businesses.

Frank Suarez, a spokesman for the city, acknowledged that road construction projects can be extremely disruptive, and the city does sympathize with the businesses that have been affected.

Lower Huntington Road, though, was one of the worst arterial routes in the city, he said, and many residents had been asking for the road to be improved.

Maybe people should just mark their calendars that come June 30, they’ll be able to get to Bair’s convenience store and to Penguin Point without hassles.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.