Petrolia Line open again while business considers the costs of summer construction

Birnam Construction workers put the top coat on Petrolia Line Nov. 26, 2015.

It didn’t take long for traffic to start zipping along the new pavement on Petrolia Line, but it may take longer for businesses in the core to recover from the effects of this phase of construction.

After months of work, Birnam Construction crews put down the last bits of asphalt Tuesday as the temperature climbed to four Celsius. By 6 pm, the fences were down and the cars and trucks were on the streets almost immediately as Town of Petrolia officials announced the news of the reopening via social media.

The construction of the first phase of the $4.5 million reconstruction of the main street has, at times seemed like a long process. Birnham had the majority of the paving completed by Friday after a burst of warm weather, but the entrance to side streets remained unpaved until Monday when the temperature climbed enough for the work to be complete.

The company started work later than anticipated and ended up paying the town about $9,000 in fees – $1,000 for every day past deadline the street wasn’t done.

But there was a bigger cost to the project. Downtown merchants all agreed the work was absolutely necessary and that town staff and officials from the Volunteer Business Group did the best they could but the delays and disruptions hurt.

Some merchants, like Weiland’s Meat Market, said their regular customers found their way into the shop through back routes but sales did slow slightly in November.

Sharon McKinley of The Olive Tree hopes most of her regulars continued to shop, but says throughout construction her sales lagged – some weeks sales were at the same level as when she started 20 years ago.

When asked if she could put a figure on what’s she’s lost, McKinley quickly says “thousands.

“I give credit to Denise (Thibeault head of the Volunteer Business Group and liaison with the town for the project) and Laurissa (Ellsworth the town’s director of marketing); they started telling us a year in advance to get ready,” she says. “It was just the last three weeks when we all said, ‘we’re fed up.’

“It was long and far more than any of us expected.”

Perhaps those facing the biggest challenges were restaurants. Christine Heffer owns The Last Course next to The Olive Tree.

The biggest issue was water interruptions – health regulations say restaurants must close if they don’t have running water.

Heffer says she understands sometimes the unexpected interruptions were unavoidable but there were planned shutdowns which she needed earlier notice so she could cancel reservations.

And this month, as the construction dragged on, she missed valuable foot traffic from the theatre crowd which has returned for the Christmas shows. “The month of November was really bad – it should be picking up again with the plays but the construction made it difficult.

“I brought in extra staff because were supposed to be busy because of the plays but we’re just not getting the traffic. They would be out there, but the construction was just hard to get around.

“It needed to be done, the fact that it went over and being that its Christmas time…we want to have as much traffic then – when it was hard to get around, people were just not there.”

Both McKinley and Heffer have some advice for merchants between Fletcher and Eureka Streets who will be in the same situation next summer as they were this year; plan ahead and try to encourage customers to find your back door.

And Heffer suggests the town could make the experience a little easier by providing maps to merchants to hand out to customers so they can give clear directions to get around the construction.