BELDING — As local business owner Bonita Steele stares out her storefront window of the Belding Mini Market through a vacant parking lot, she only observes more of the same.
Located directly across her business on W. Main Street is Millie’s Family Restaurant, which also stands still without a single customer inside.
It’s a painful situation that is a direct result of a necessary construction project just 400 feet down the road, where the Main Street bridge is currently coming down piece by piece in order for a new, safe bridge to be installed over the Flat River.
The route has been closed to traffic since June 23, effectively shutting down one of the main hubs of traffic into the city, which sees more than 3,200 vehicles a day. The route will be closed until November.
There are detours posted to travel around the now defunct bridge, but the change in travel has created a difficult environment for many downtown business owners.
“It’s been worse than the winter months,” Steele said. “(Sales) are starting to increase again, but still only at winter month levels. My main line items have dropped below 50 percent of their average selling rate.”
On the northeast end of town, less than 400 feet from the city limit, another necessary Ionia County bridge replacement project on Long Lake Road that began on April 28 is nearing completion, but is still closed to traffic.
Sam Mason, owner of the Belding Party Store on N. Bridge St., claims his sales have dropped anywhere from 30 to 50 percent, likely a result of detours that commuters must take east outside of Belding and onto State Street (M-44).
“We’re hurting, big time,” he said. “We’re down about half in sales. We’ve really been hurt with the bridge being out on Long Lake Road and now we have another bridge out.”
With the detour to enter Belding taking commuters east of town to Johnson Road and out to M-44, Mason says many of his customers have found alternate stores along the highway as they enter the city, preventing them from traveling downtown via Bridge Street.
At the Silk City Saloon restaurant in the center of town, owner Mark Hoople worries for his employees, as his customers have also been down about 30 percent fewer in number, affecting his sales and forcing him to reduce hours for his staff.
“I’m worried about my people who work here,” he said. “If things are slow, do they go get a job somewhere else, or do they stick it out? (The construction) is affecting my employees more than it is me. I don’t want to lose any of them, but if I don’t have the hours available, I can’t schedule them.”
It’s a difficult time for downtown Belding, and business owners are just hoping their customers won’t forget about them.
Still open for business
The bridge replacement projects have been on record for several years, and after failed inspections, the projects were required by the state.
The Main Street bridge, a 140-foot three-span structure, was built in 1968.
In May 2011, the bridge fell into disrepair as a 3-foot-by-2-foot hole developed on a beam on the north side of the structure.
The city applied for an emergency application in 2011 for a grant through the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). The grant was approved in 2012 and will almost entirely fund the multi-million dollar project.
The bridge was limited to a 20-ton limit, which forced the city’s fire trucks, which come in at 25 tons, to use longer alternate routes to reach emergency situations west of the bridge.
On Long Lake Road, the deteriorating two-lane 105-foot span composed of concrete beams over the Flat River will be replaced with pre-stressed steel.
Eighty percent of funding for the $1.1 million project is coming from federal grants, with the State of Michigan funding 15 percent and the Ionia County Road Commission and Otisco Township funding the remaining 5 percent.
Business owners aren’t arguing that the bridges needed to be replaced, but are just hoping that customers, both near and far, wont forget about them as they are detoured throughout other areas in and outside of the community.
“It’s going to be wonderful when it’s done, I’m not arguing that it all,” Steele said. “It absolutely needed to be done. But I did not anticipate it would do this much damage to my sales.”
Steele said she has observed commuters come to a stop at construction barricades, only to turn around in defeat, not knowing exactly how to reach their destination.
Mason said he has watched as former customers have stopped at other convenience stores along M-44, as they no longer travel near his store as they commute along the detoured routes.
“I see them at Wesco and Marathon when they get gas on M-44,” he said. “It’s my worry, and everybody’s worry, that when the routes reopen, will our customers come back?”
Hoople said he believes many customers are just avoiding the hassle of traveling around construction and are finding alternate dining locations.
“Every segment of my business is down because our customers are cut off, especially along Long Lake Road,” he said. “And there’s not much else to do in Belding, so they aren’t traveling the extra distance to come into town. I want Belding to succeed. If people come downtown and spend money, businesses will thrive. When other businesses see businesses thriving in your town, other business will come in and create more business.”
But with several months of construction still looming ahead, Mason and other owners are searching for a short-term solution to bring customers back to their businesses.
No easy answer
For now, business owners are holding tight.
Traffic is expected to open again on Long Lake road within a few days of the completion of the bridge project, which is projected to be Aug. 23.
Mason said the return of Long Lake road traffic will help “considerably.”
While the Main Street bridge will be closed for much longer, Steele says she is hoping additional signage throughout the city will help direct commuters to her business and others throughout the downtown area.
Steele said she was disappointed when she approached the city asking permission to place advertising signs throughout town to promote the businesses that are hurting from road construction.
Steele said she asked for extra leniency to place signs on the construction barricades, which are maintained and controlled by MDOT and located in the city street right-of-ways, but was initially denied.
According to Belding City Manager Meg Mullendore, the city’s sign ordinances prohibit the placement of signs in the street right-of-ways.
According to the city’s sign ordinance: “No sign shall be placed in, upon or over any public right of way, alley or other public place except as otherwise permitted as follows: A; A projecting sign may extend over the public sidewalk provided that the bottom of the sign is at least eight feet above the sidewalk. B; A garage or estate sale sign is permitted within a city of Belding right of way subject to the requirements (of city ordinances).”
“Those are the only two caveats allowing signs in the public right of way, it is our ordinance, it is law, it is regulatory,” Mullednore said. “I do not have the liberty to simply dismiss (an ordinance).”
Steele said after her request was denied by Zoning Administrator Don Eady, she approached members of city council for assistance.
On Monday, Mullendore said she was willing to waive the ordinance for downtown businesses during construction with the exception of three city streets; State Street, Bridge Street and Ellis Street.
“My making an exception to this violates our zoning ordinance, which I technically do not have the authority to do,” she said. “That is how willing I am to support these businesses. I’m very limited in what I can do.”
Steele said she now plans to create a number of signs to place throughout the city, for her and other businesses, hoping that residents will remember to visit them despite the inconvenience of detours.
“I was very happy to get some leniency, though I don’t think it should have been that difficult of a process,” she said.
Also coming to their customers’ aide, Leppink’s Food Center and the Belding Apothecary have provided funds to have the city’s Dial-A-Ride service pick up customers at the Belhaven and Woodhaven apartment complexes, as many of the residents previously walked to their destinations.
“We are in this together,” Steele said. “As business owners, we have to work together to help each other out, as well as help our customers.”
Mayor Ron Gunderson said he is sorry for the inconvenience the detours have placed on Belding businesses, but hopes that the city will be better improved upon the completion of the construction projects.
“In turn, this has a created a negative situation for businesses,” he said. “Hopefully these projects, when completed, will eventually help our businesses. For now, we can only be patient and continue to support our local businesses by doing our part and using the detours to continue to visit our businesses downtown.”