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Who’s on Main?

With jackhammers and dump trucks blocking much of Jonesborough’s Main Street on a regular basis, patience is running thin among some downtown merchants.
After nearly 10 weeks of having the main thoroughfare of the town’s historic district at least partially blocked due to construction, Jeff Gurley, a Main Street shop owner, says business is “horrendous.”
Gurley, owner of The Lollipop Shop, said he and other downtown merchants are growing more and more disheartened as work to update underground power services and a decades-old water line continues.
Although Gurley says everyone understands the need for the work and is looking forward to the end result, the fact remains that the work is having a negative economic impact.
“No one wants to go without a paycheck,” Gurley said, “and that is what is basically happening.”
To address those concerns, Gurley and others gathered on March 13 to draft a letter to be sent to Town Administrator Bob Browning.
“We want to be positive and polite,” Gurley said, “but we have some requests we believe could make things a lot better.”
Gurley says the merchants’ main requests will include asking that dump trucks and other construction vehicles not be parked in front of open businesses; that the merchants be given a weekly schedule of when and where work will be done; and that the work schedule be adjusted to avoid peak business hours.
“It would help a lot if they would work 5-11 p.m. or 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. If they are doing work in the Johnson City Mall, they don’t block the stores and they do most of it before and after the stores are closed.”
While early in the year business is traditionally slow, Gurley says, the spring break weeks usually mean “a little bump” for merchants, a boost he doesn’t foresee happening this year.
“This was the worst February ever,” Gurley said. “When you have dump trucks parked in your front door, it’s just not good. It’s a ghost town down here.”
To underscore that statement, Gurley and his 3-year-old son, Jac, took to the street for a game of t-ball around noon last Monday.
“No problem,” Gurley said. “The street was wide open.”
The construction has been more disruptive than merchants were originally led to believe, Gurley said, noting that on two separate occasions, he and others were told that Main Street would never be completely closed.
“Bob Browning told Herman Jenkins and myself that one lane would always be open,” Gurley said. “He also said the same thing at a meeting of the Jonesborough Merchants and Service Association.”
According to an October 11, 2011 Talk of the Town column in the Herald & Tribune, Gurley is correct.
“Businesses will remain open downtown throughout the repairs and while traffic may be slowed, it won’t be blocked, town officials promise,” the article reads.
The piece was written by Lisa Whaley, a freelance writer hired by the Town of Jonesborough to create the bi-monthly column.
Browning is also quoted in another Herald & Tribune story written by Assistant Editor Karen Sells, repeating the town’s “intent to always have one lane open” at a meeting of the Jonesborough Area Merchants and Service Association on October 11.
“There’s no question about what we intended to do,” said Browning, Town Administrator. “Our plan was to make every effort to keep traffic flow available.”
“But,” he insists, “we also said things could change depending on what we ran into.”
What the town “ran into” Browning says, was a problem that made it impossible to construct the new water line right next to the existing cast iron line as planned.
“It was so close to the Power Board’s primary line, we couldn’t get it in there,” Browning explained. “We didn’t know that until we started digging.”
That forced the town to move the new water line to the middle of the street and “once we moved there,” he said, “we had no flexibility and were better off just closing the section (of the street) we were working on and moving along as quickly as possible.”
“It’s not what we wanted to do – it’s what we had to do,” Browning added.
According to Browning, the Town of Jonesborough’s water crew should be finished by the end of March. However the Power Board’s schedule appears uncertain.
“We’re working as fast and hard as we can,” Browning said, “and we’re trying to get up past the Storytelling Center as fast as possible so we can at least open Main Street in that area where people can come up and around the Courthouse.”
The Town of Jonesborough will also be revisiting the possibility of having the power board work at night, or changing their work schedules.
“We talked about them working at night originally,” Browning said, “but they have told us they really don’t want to do that because of safety issues.”
A change in scheduling is further complicated by the Town’s reluctance to close off Main Street early in the morning due to heavy pass-through traffic between 6 – 8 a.m. Browning says.
“We have so much pass-through traffic downtown that we leave the street open until 8 a.m. to allow it to get through before we start working. Traffic is like water. If you block it somewhere it will go somewhere else and it will negatively impact another area of town.”
But for Gurley and others, their area of town is the one they’re most concerned with. They are also concerned that it appears the construction will also affect Music On The Square.
“We were led to believe that this would be completed by the beginning of Music on the Square,” Gurley said. “Now, Melinda Copp is telling us that they are probably going to have to move MOTS over to the side of the courthouse near Creekside and that they hope to have the street open by Jonesborough Days,” Gurley said.
Steve Cook, also a downtown merchant and the director of MOTS, acknowledged there would be a temporary change in venue for the popular summer music program.
“We will be moving MOTS to the east side of the courthouse for the first part of the season,” Cook said. “We’ll miss having it right here in the heart of town, but at the same time, we didn’t want to get too far away. We will still be just a block off the street and everyone can access stores and restaurants.”
While Cook says he thinks the move will somewhat disrupt the flow “of what we’ve become comfortable with”, he says moving out of the town’s “living room” space in front of the courthouse is temporary.
Cook, also a Main Street merchant and owner of Jonesborough Art Glass, says it’s hard for him to say how much the construction has affected his business since “business is pretty slow this time of year, anyway.”
For Cook, the construction has created a different kind of problem.
“This is a dusty process,” Cook said, “and when you have a few thousand things in a store that collect dust, that is a challenge in itself. “
“But we’re trying to stay ahead of it. After 33 years in business, we’re accustomed to some down time for street work and infrastructure. The fact that our town will be improved at the end of all this is the light at the end of the tunnel.”