If you ask the businesses along 29th Avenue near the border of Wheat Ridge and the Highland neighborhood of Denver about the nearby construction, they’ll say they are struggling.
“I know a lot of customers very well ... We know these people and they call us, they email us, they text me on my own personal line: ‘We can’t get there. We wish we could, but it’s too hard,” lamented Jessica Bobitsky, owner of Wheat Ridge Meat and Poultry.
Major construction has plagued the area for the last six years. Sales at the meat shop have plummetted as much as 80 percent as customers struggle to get access to the Wheat Ridge shops on 29th Avenue between Fenton and Kendall. The parking lot was often blocked off by road work signs or street parking had been taken over which prompted many a confrontation between business owners and construction crews. Even the garbage truck coming to fetch the meat shop’s trash has had to argue with construction crews just to get through and for two days most businesses had to shut down when a water pipe broke.
It used to be that Bobitsky would bring in some $150,000 a month in the summer when customers stopped by from near and far for grilling supplies. Now she is hopeful for 40-50 thousand in sales. Her crew of 14 employees has shrunk to just a handful including herself working open to close nearly every day of the week barely squeezing in time for her family. In April 2018 an employee before her shift stood on the corner with a sign saying “Help save my job” followed by an arrow pointing to the meat shop followed by the address.
Customers used to come as far as Colorado Springs to her shop and despite posts on Facebook and other outlets saying they are open, many have just stopped coming.
On the northwest corner of 29th Avenue and Fenton Street at what is now the Ashland Reservoir, Denver Water installed two, 10-million gallon treated water takes to replace the dilapidated, open-air reservoirs from 1891, according to Denver Water. It was a part of a $120 million plan to upgrade treated water storage tanks across Denver’s water system, explained Denver Water representative Jose Salas in an email. They also upgraded pipes and valves and were able to use a new, less-invasive approach called “trenchless technology” to replace the pipes.
He said they met with business owners and the city of Wheat Ridge to come up with ways to minimize impacts from the construction like sending mailers to the surrounding community promoting the businesses impacted by the construction as well as messages on Nextdoor App. They also made signs of traffic barriers statting that businesses were open during construction as well as posting on Variable Message Boards.
Other projects included Comcast replacing lines down Depew Street off of 29th Avenue. West of Fenton was straightened out by the city of Wheat Ridge, according to Russ Higgins, a field supervisor for the city. Also, 29th Avenue east of Fenton was redone to improve drainage in the area. He explained that for the Denver Water project, Fenton was closed off and 29th was closed to through traffic from Sheridan Avenue. If cars wanted to get through to Wadsworth, they would have to turn around or navigate through residential streets. But Wheat Ridge put up signage indicating the businesses were open, but that didn’tseem to attract customers. When Wheat ridge straightened out 29th Ave west of Fenton, they were able to leave Fenton open for cars to go north and south.
Needless to say, that area was under heavy construction for some six years and all parties involved, like Denver Water, and Wheat Ridge claim to have done their best to accommodate the businesses nestled in the little shopping center, but the businesses there feel abandoned.
Wheat Ridge Mayor and owner of West 29th Restaurant and Bar, Bud Starker even felt the repercussions directly.
While his restaurant is further down from the Denver Water project, construction was most intrusive toward the end of the project when they went to connect their conduits to the neighborhood and had to dig up large hole in front of his restaurant. Starker guesses the ensuing trench was about 40 feet long and 10 feet deep reaching to the meat shop and shutting down 29th Avenue.
“We certainly lost business as a result of it. We got a better dinner-type restaurant so it’s sort of hard to get people in that just don’t feel like getting around all of the barricades,” Starker said. Customers had to come in from 26th Avenue so “finding us was challenging.”
The city put signage on 26th, but Starker said: “once people get their routes disrupted its hard to get them to come another way and they just kind of back off.”
“Half of our customers thought we were out of business,” said Walt Skinner, owner of SAT Automotive. His auto shop sits catty-corner to the Ashland Reservoir. He reports a 20-30% drop in sales and with significant traffic issues as Denver Water contractors would re-route traffic through his parking including busses and semi-trucks. The locally owned Valero gas station and liquor store across the street also suffered and dealt with re-directed traffic.
Other times, Skinner’s lot was completely blocked off and he would have to tell his regulars how to get there. Occasionally he met with the contractors and other businesses to figure out solutions, one of which was to discount his work with coupons.
One day workers were leaning against a truck on his lot, empty beer bottles are strewn about. Another day they were working on the sidewalk and took out an entire entrance ramp to his parking lot. Both situations were quickly rectified when he brought it to the attention of Denver Water or the foreman.
“Now that they’re gone, it’s different, but it was ugly,” said Skinner who praises the project and new look across the street now that it’s completed.
Not everyone is so forgiving, though.
“This is about how the people in charge, how they don’t go about proper communications with local businesses and how some of the procedures should be discussed locally so there are less congestion and fewer confusions,” protested Josh Hudson, owner of Twisted Smoothie next to the meat shop. He opened his store in August 2013 and said he would have found a different location had he known about the construction that would take anywhere from 10-30% of his businesses off the books over the following six years.
The parking lot would be too full for customers to run in and out. Or it would be full in the winter months from hunters dropping off their hunted game to the meat shop. Usually, they go around back, but sometimes because of construction they couldn’t wait in the normal line, so some of Josh’s customers would push through pick-up trucks with dead elk hanging out the back. Some of his customers just gave up coming because they couldn’t get there.
“It hurts reputation,” continued Josh who did mention how nice the construction workers were and even gave them discounts on drinks. It didn’t help overall relations though. A few times he went to the City of Wheat Ridge looking for help, not handouts he clarified, but maybe some tax relief. “I’m not a fan of Wheat Ridge when it comes to the economic development council.”
The director of Wheat Ridge’s Economic Development Steve Art said there’s no program like tax relief currently in place to help businesses and he’s unaware of a city that does anything like that, it’s the “nature of the beast.”
The city did push promotional material about businesses being open through advertisements in local newspapers, on their website, e-blasts, newsletters, and signage stating the businesses were still open. Art said “I don’t mean to sound cold . . .” pointing out that the construction s was mostly private projects by establishments like Denver Water and Xcel, an answer Bobitsky quickly grew frustrated getting in her attempts at finding help from the city.
“It’s been a tough couple of years, and I completely feel for these businesses and I know what they went through,” said Art.
According to Higgins, there will be more construction this summer, a drainage project at 26th Avenue and Fenton Street Wheat Ridge is teaming up with Edgewater to do. But the bulk of construction along 29th Avenue has concluded.
Bobitsky said she understands the need for new infrastructure, but it needs to be done differently.
“Let’s stop for a second and think about hor our community members, our community business owners, and our community leaders can all work together to make sure this progress does happen and these improvements do happen, because it benefits everybody, without driving people out of business,” Bobitsky said. “That’s my biggest question and I don’t get an answer from anybody, ever.”
Until then, the shops at 29th and Fenton want the world to know they are open for business.
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