November 29, 2022

The Cost of Road Construction

How far would you drive for your favorite local business?
By Jillian Manning | July 30, 2022

Michigan is known for its four distinct seasons: fall, winter, still winter, and road construction. And while we put up with the delays and detours of construction season for its major perks—blue sky days, green trails, and finally-warm-enough waters—those orange cones herald more than just fresh asphalt for some local businesses. Road closures and detours can negatively impact NoMi companies’ bottom lines, especially for those who rely on tourist traffic.

Taking a Drive
The latest clash of cones and commerce is taking place on M-66. If you’ve driven the highway lately, you’ve seen “Road Closed” or “Bridge Out” signs approaching the stretch between Charlevoix and East Jordan. And if you’ve followed one of the two recommended detours, you’ve taken a 67- to 73-mile journey—albeit a scenic one—you may not have been expecting.

On July 11, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) began a $1 million replacement project on the culvert that carries Monroe Creek (an offshoot of the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix) beneath M-66. The project is scheduled to last until Sept. 2.

“During inspections, our maintenance staff have found separation in sections of the existing 72-inch steel pipe culvert in this location, which results in erosion beneath the roadway and some issues with settling, necessitating its replacement,” says James Lake, MDOT’s North Region communications representative. “We are replacing it with an elliptical 17-by-11-foot aluminum culvert, which is lighter weight to help avoid future settling and will improve the flow of the Monroe Creek.”

Though M-66 is only closed to through-traffic between Lord and Lacroix roads where the culvert lies—roughly 1 mile—any traffic that is not headed for a destination along M-66 is rerouted along two lengthy detours. MDOT can’t route trucks and other commercial traffic down neighborhood drives or county roads, which means they have to stick to state highways. And with Lake Charlevoix hemming in the east side of M-66 and virtually no major roads available on the west, MDOT was forced to get creative.

The first recommended detour takes you south on M-66 from East Jordan down to Mancelona, jogs west and north on M-88 to the top of Torch Lake, then puts you on US-31 until Charlevoix where you can meet up with M-66 again. All told, the full detour is 73 miles and 1 hour and 30 minutes, according to Google Maps.

The alternate detour is only a little bit shorter. Southbound M-66 takes you to M-32, cruises near Elmira, hops onto US-131 north to Petoskey, then follows US-31 along the coast through Charlevoix and back south onto M-66. This route is 67 miles and 1 hour and 23 minutes.

“The detours are significant,” Lake acknowledges, “but that is because we needed to identify detours on state highways that are built to accommodate commercial vehicles.”

 

The Grass Isn’t Greener
The aquatic life might be happier with their new culvert this fall, but several nearby business owners are concerned the project will eat into their summer profits.

“We have found that the pretty immediate impact has lessened our business by at least 50 percent,” says Paul Vermeesch, who co-owns Stonehedge Gardens with his wife, Cindy.

Located 4 miles north of Lacroix Road on M-66, the rustic storefront is surrounded by blooming gardens, and the shop itself houses work from local artisans, homegoods, antiques, and specialty jewelry, making it a popular summer stop.

“We’re a seasonal business, as most are up here, and these are the two busiest months of the year,” Paul explains, adding that July and August are where the business makes most of its operating revenue to sustain it for the next 10 months.

But Stonehedge falls on the wrong side of the closure for folks coming up from the southern or middle part of northern Michigan, and even as far north as Petoskey, drivers are advised to avoid M-66 and take the detour instead.

“We’re missing a lot of traffic for sure,” Cindy says. “There’s not going to be that drive-by traffic that we normally get.” She says she’s grateful that many locals know the back roads, but is concerned those who don’t will be deterred by the closure and that visitors to the area won’t know how to find Stonehedge at all.

Other affected businesses along the north-of-Lacroix M-66 corridor include Hungry Ducks Farm, Castle Farms, The Landing restaurant, and Otis Pottery, to name a few. Smack dab in the middle of the construction zone is Elm Pointe Park and Natural Area. The park is open, confirms the City of East Jordan, and the 59th annual Portside Art Fair remains scheduled for Aug. 6-7, though attendees might have to do a bit of driving wizardry to get there.

The timing is tough for the businesses, but MDOT had some calendar restrictions of its own.

“MDOT is not exempt from following the fishery restrictions that are established through different wildlife organizations,” says Brad Swanson, construction engineer on the project. “We knew that with a project like this, we needed to be out of the river by Oct. 1 for their requirements.”

Swanson says that the 8-week timeline couldn’t have fallen before Memorial Day (again, for fish-related restrictions) and that MDOT wanted to avoid work on busy holidays like Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. There also wouldn’t be time to complete the project come fall, and Swanson says they were very cognizant of the return to school, which could have caused issues with bussing.

“This was the best 8-week window to be able to mesh other restrictions, holiday restrictions, mobility, tourism, as well as honor those environmental restrictions,” Swanson explains.

Give Us a Sign
The Vermeeschs say they understand why the culvert replacement is happening and that MDOT had little choice in the routes or the timing—“they’re a seasonal business too,” Paul jokes—though they wish they had gotten a heads-up about the project so they could plan their summer and their budget accordingly.

Cindy says that they had first heard a rumor about the culvert replacement and M-66 closure back in February but couldn’t confirm it with MDOT or their chamber of commerce. It wasn’t until Paul saw a sign notifying drivers about the start of construction in early July that they knew the project was underway.

Lake confirms that signage is one of the key methods MDOT uses to get the word out for projects, along with news releases, social media posts, and putting information on the Mi Drive travel site (michigan.gov/drive). “We hope that people see the news and the other methods that we use to notify them, but oftentimes, drivers, commuters, and residents see those signs they’re driving past every day,” he says.

Having only a few days to prepare for the closure was a bit of a gut punch for Stonehedge Gardens. “[MDOT is] doing all they can on a very necessary project,” Paul says. “I guess our only disappointment is not knowing [the project was happening], to where we could adjust our buying, our advertising, our signage, things like that. It affects our bottom line … coming out of COVID and all that stuff, it’s a tough road to go down.”

When asked whether MDOT plans to help make drivers aware that the M-66 businesses are eager for customers, Lake responds, “We do not have signs specifically alerting drivers that businesses are accessible on M-66, but we are seeing lots of traffic still heading north and south of the project location in spite of the closure. We added additional signs [last] week to help reinforce the message that the road is closed to through traffic and directing drivers to the detour. Having a full closure for this project will allow our contractor to finish their work more safely and quickly, which will reduce the overall duration of impact of the closure and detour.”

Be sure to skip the Lord to Lacroix section of M-66, but so long as you’re not driving a semi, there are plenty of safe and easy ways to navigate around the closure and reach the M-66 businesses. If you don’t have a maps app to do the work for you, call the business you’re trying to reach and they’ll do their best to help.

A Not-So-Rare Situation
The tricky combination of road work closures and local business revenues have been a hot topic in northern Michigan over the last few years. For example, Groleau’s Farm Market in Traverse City was heavily impacted by a roundabout installed on Hammond and Four Mile roads in the summer of 2021. That June, they told 9&10 News they’d seen a 75 percent drop in ice cream sales and a 50 percent drop in produce sales.

Similarly, Rare Bird Brewpub in downtown TC found itself at the crossroads of two bridge projects in 2021. The restaurant-slash-brewery is located on Lake Avenue between Eighth and Cass streets, and, for a significant stretch of last summer, both the Eighth Street bridge and the Cass Street bridge were under construction.

Co-owner Tina Schuette says there was a “noticeable” change in business once the construction began, to the tune of a 25-30 percent decrease year over year. She notes that luckily the city was good about keeping businesses in the loop in terms of timing, so neither the work nor the slowdown came as a surprise.

Rare Bird focused its efforts on reaching out to locals. “We did put out some social media posts, kind of for the locals to say, ‘Just so you know, the tourists are having a hard time finding us and it’s quiet!’” Schuette says.

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