BUFORD — Cindy Schrenk has seen a marked decrease in business since the Ga. 347/Lanier Islands Parkway widening project began about this time last year.
“We’re hanging on by a thread,” said the owner of Hallmark Freight and Surplus Sales on B.U. Bowman Drive, off Ga. 347. “I just hope to see what the next six months do.”
It’s a worry shared to some extent or another by other business owners on the 1«-mile stretch between McEver Road and Interstate 985. They said they’ve seen profits erode and neighboring shops close.
“My business is down 15 to 18 percent this year, and I relate it totally to the road,” said Ken Hensley, owner of Hensley Automotive Services.
He believes the new road, when finished, “will be a positive thing for us,” but “I think that if some of the businesses (on the road) are down that much (in sales), they’re not going to make it.”
It’s a similar scenario played out a few years ago with the massive rebuild of Mundy Mill Road at I-985.
“It seems to always follow that these big projects — and this is a big project — make a huge improvement once they’re done, but there’s some pain and suffering along the way,” said Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development.
The Ga. 347 stretch is flanked by numerous businesses, including restaurants, gas stations and child care and strip-shopping centers. The heaviest cluster is between Ga. 13/Atlanta Highway and I-985.
The $14 million Georgia Department of Transportation project calls for widening the road to a four-lane divided highway, including sidewalks.
For now, though, concrete barriers and orange construction barrels line the road, as crews work in what will be the new road’s eastbound lanes, paving and putting down curb and gutter. Workers just started the second of three layers of asphalt, said Teri Pope, district spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, last week.
Work also is taking place on Ga. 13 and McEver Road at Ga. 347.
“Traffic was shifted west of the existing intersections so crews can work where traffic used to run,” Pope said, adding that the work will continue until paving is complete on the lanes and at the intersections.
At some point, probably over a weekend, traffic will be moved to the new lanes and work will begin in earnest on rebuilding the two lanes traffic is using now — or what will be the westbound lanes. Pope didn’t have a time frame for the move, adding that “paving is so weather-dependent.”
The project’s overall completion date is Nov. 30, 2014, which hasn’t budged since the project started, despite all the rainfall this year. It’s “on schedule right now,” Pope said.
She also noted that “most of the paving work is happening overnight, so motorists can access their destinations during the day without going through a paving operation.”
In the meantime, access is an issue for some motorists and businesses. Openings, which are layered with gravel until they get paved, can be easily missed.
“A lot of people have commented they just don’t know where to turn in,” said Erik Nilsen, owner of Coastal Breeze Seafood Grill, which is off Ga. 347, east of McEver.
Pope said that “at least one access point will be open throughout construction, and some businesses have two access points. We cannot keep every access point open all the time but will keep at least one open all the time.”
The road project has benefited Nilsen in a couple of ways: It helped drive down the price of the property and has aided in sketching his future.
“I figured I could get it for a good deal, run a successful business and once (the project’s) done in two years, double the property value and have a great location,” he said.
He believes prosperous times will follow for businesses that are able to weather the heavy construction.
“Once (the project’s) done, I think businesses will come to the area,” Nilsen said.
Steve Patrick, vice president of leasing and management for Atlanta-based Blue Ridge Capital, which bought Friendship Village and Shoppes four months ago, said the company was “very aware of the construction and the timeline it was going to take for that to occur prior to (the purchase),” he said.
“When we purchased (the centers), they were about 60 percent vacant, and part of the reason was that previous tenants had been impacted by the road.”
Since then, Blue Ridge has leased out space and is negotiating with others, including two restaurant groups.
“We feel like it’s a really good time for tenants looking for space, because they can get a better deal in that corridor right now because of traffic concerns,” Patrick said. “But the good news is: There’s a lot of traffic there.
“That’s the flip side of having to work through a lot of construction. At the end of the day, there’s going to be a significant improvement and the businesses that are able to survive and new ones looking there now are going to benefit from it significantly.”
Schrenk said that once the project is complete, she plans to go in half with Hensley Automotive on a brick sign that displays the business’ name and an arrow directing motorists toward her business.
“That’s hoping we can hang on until then,” she said.
The widening is one of three projects on Ga. 347 that ultimately will serve as a major east-west connector in South Hall.
Also being widened is a stretch between I-985 and Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway, or Friendship Road, which will become Lanier Islands Parkway in January 2015. This year’s bouts of heavy rainfall have pushed off the completion date to Jan. 10, 2016, from July 31, 2015.
The last link of the new parkway — between McEver Road and Lake Lanier Islands resort — is in design. The 2.4-mile project calls for a center turn lane, a multiuse trail on one side and sidewalk on the other.