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Downtown Erwin enters phase 2 of revitalization

June 8th, 2014 9:46 pm by Brad Hicks

Downtown Erwin enters phase 2 of revitalization

The second phase of Erwin's downtown revitalization project is slated for completion in late September. This phase of the project will cover the areas of Main Avenue from Gay Street to Union Street and includes stormwater work. (Brad Hicks/Johnson City Pr

ERWIN — As crowds filed into downtown Johnson City on Friday afternoon to take part in the 15th annual Blue Plum Festival, the scene was quite different in downtown Erwin.

Rather than swarms of festivalgoers, construction crews and equipment filled the streets of Erwin as the second phase of the town’s downtown revitalization continues.

Construction on the second phase began in April, and work started with stormwater work on the block from Union Street to Nolichucky Avenue. A component of the project is the installation of a box culvert that will take excess water to Nolichucky Avenue, where it will be routed into a drainage system that goes through the nearby railroad property and will take the water to the nearby creek.

In February, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a bid from Summers Taylor Inc., to complete the second and third phases of the project. The construction company submitted a base bid of approximately $2,995,000. Prior to this, the board had approved a resolution authorizing the town to borrow funds in an amount not to exceed $3.5 million to complete the remaining revitalization work.

Recently, work moved from this block to Main Avenue between the Gay Street and Union Street intersections. And while downtown Erwin continues to see its share of visitors, it is the downtown merchants that witness the progress of the work on a daily basis. The consensus among the merchants in the impacted area is that while business may be down now, it will be worth it in the long run.

“Anytime there’s progress, you have to make sacrifices,” Choo Choo Cafe owner Brenda Hawley said. “And the men are working so hard. This is dangerous work. That’s one thing I think we have failed to realize. Not only are we improving our town, but these men are working extremely hard to make sure it’s done correctly. The inconvenience that it causes us is minor in comparison to what we will reap in the future when it’s finished, not only as merchants, but as residents of Erwin.”

In summer 2011, the board approved an agreement with planning firm Kimley-Horn and Associates to develop a master plan for the downtown revitalization project. This plan was approved by town officials in February 2012.

The revitalization project was undertaken to bring aesthetic and infrastructure improvements to the downtown area, as well as bring the district into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. The first phase of the project, which covered the area of Main Avenue from Tucker Street to Gay Street, was completed in September and included the widening of sidewalks, installation of new lighting and installation of underground utilities. The second phase of the project is intended to bring these same improvements to the section of Main Avenue from Gay Street to Union Street.

Hawley said her evening business is down significantly, adding that merchants in the area impacted by the construction experience maybe one-third of the business they had prior to the start of construction.

“It’s a financial sacrifice, but we have no choice,” Hawley said. “So you can either cry about it or rejoice.”

Rebecca Moreland opened the Buttercup Bakery on Union Street around seven months ago. She said she had heard from other merchants in downtown Erwin about the impact the construction has had on business, but Moreland admits she was not ready for it herself.

“I have to say, I was not prepared for it,” Moreland said.

Moreland said her first six months in business in the downtown area were “phenomenal,” but she said patronage of her sweets shop has been down in the past month as construction has ramped up.

“It’s impacted our street traffic about 90 percent, but we do lunch now, which we did not do before, and that is keeping us in business,” Moreland said. “We’ve had a really good response to that. We’re delivering and we’ve got a lot of catering, too, like from (Nuclear Fuel Services). The local businesses are really trying to support us.”

Business is still strong for Lou Snider, owner of the Hawg-n-Dawg restaurant, located adjacent to Buttercup Bakery. Snider said the construction has had little to no impact on his customer traffic, even when it moved to the street right outside his door.

“We have had no real effect on our business whatsoever,” Snider said. “My customers are probably some of the best customers in the entire world. They’ll come through the mud puddles, they’ll go over the gravel piles, they’ll walk on cardboard, they’ll walk on stones, they’ll duck underneath track hoes to get here.”

Joey Lewis, co-owner of the Valley Beautiful Antique Mall on Main Avenue, also said he has not experienced a “huge loss” in business since construction moved onto the main streets. He said business was good in May and has been so far steady in June.

“We’ve had some of our regular customers,” Lewis said. “When they want it bad enough, they’ll park and fine a way to get in.”

The second phase of the downtown revitalization project is slated to be completed in late September, ahead of the Unicoi County Apple Festival, which will be held the first Friday and Saturday in October in downtown Erwin. Merchants currently affected by the revitalization construction agree they are impressed by the first phase and are optimistic about the impact the completed work will have on their businesses.

“I think the first two sections they did look very nice,” Lewis said. “If you look up through there, you see the power lines gone and the new sidewalks in. I think it looks great, and I hope it does improve not only the aesthetic quality of downtown, but also the business part of it, where more people will come in.”

Hawley said she gets “goosebumps” when she thinks of how the town will look once the revitalization project is complete.

“The streets are more narrow, and I had my doubts on whether or not that would work, but it works,” she said. “It works fine. It looks great, it’s amazing. I’m just glad I’m part of it.”

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