One merchant said he’s lost more than $100,000 in sales. Another said she had to close her business. And a third has posted signs that express frustration with the pace of construction at Jackson Square.
At one time, there was hope that the $1 million parking lot renovation at Jackson Square would be complete by the Lavender Festival in mid-June. But that didn’t happen. Now, the latest construction schedule estimates that it will be “substantially complete” by September 15—in time for Taste of Anderson County—but not finished until the end of October.
Officials have said the primary delay has been with the interactive fountain that will be installed in the center of Jackson Square. It still hasn’t arrived, and officials have said it could take four weeks to install. On Monday, the contractor and her attorney said the fountain could arrive in Oak Ridge on Wednesday.
Even business owners who had an optimistic outlook earlier have lost their patience with the project, which is mostly funded with a state grant. Their primary frustrations: The work has taken much longer than expected, the schedule keeps getting extended, and there have been too many days when, they say, they’ve seen no signs of work. In the meantime, the parking lot in front of their stores was closed for months, and they believe that the construction fencing and orange barrels drove away some potential customers.
“Why can’t they finish this?” asked Jonathan Goldstein of The String Workshop.
“We’ve been nice long enough,” said Dean Russell, owner of Dean’s Restaurant and Bakery.
“I think our frustration is how many days we’ve seen nothing happening as our customer base declines,” said Steve Seivers, who has a law practice in the square, the city’s original town center.
On Monday, the Oak Ridge City Council joined the chorus of frustration.
Why, Council members wanted to know, has it taken so long to complete this project, and why is the work still not complete seven months after it started?
“That’s my frustration,” said Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, who regularly pressed for updates on the project leading up to the June 20 Lavender Festival. “It’s the frustration of the community. It’s certainly been the frustration of the merchants of Jackson Square and their customers.”
Some pressed for answers on who might be accountable for the delays.
“What went wrong here?” City Council member Rick Chinn asked. “Who dropped the ball?”
He pointed out that the Jackson Square merchants are “mom and pop” businesses, and some of them have been hurt by the ongoing construction.
Several merchants said Dean’s Restaurant and Bakery has probably taken the biggest hit. Russell said his restaurant is down $100,000 in sales since construction started in early January.
Besides Dean’s, other businesses on the west side of Jackson Square, where part of the parking lot remains barricaded, are The Ferrell Shop and Spotted Spaniel, Jackson Square Title Company and attorney Steven R. Seivers, CapitalMark Bank and Trust, and Oak Ridge Playhouse.
But Council didn’t get a clear answer on Monday on who, if anyone, is to blame for the delays in what had been expected to be a six-month project. And that seemed to leave some frustrated.
“About everything people hate about government is visible in this project,” Council member Trina Baughn said. “No one wants to take responsibility for it.”
While work continues, there have been some recent changes meant to help the businesses and their customers. The city has posted two electronic reader board signs on Oak Ridge Turnpike reminding residents and customers that Jackson Square is still open for business. And most of the parking lot has been re-opened, sometimes in increments, after an agreement was reached between state and city officials and the contractor and her attorney.
“I hope that helps everybody,” Oak Ridge City Engineer Roger Flynn said on Friday, July 24.
Russell said his business jumped 9 percent after one recent move of parking lot barriers, and sales increased 25 percent when comparing that Friday’s numbers to the previous Friday.
There are still construction zone signs posted, and it’s park at your own risk. Part of the lot isn’t striped, and the west side of the lot is not striped at all. And there is some concrete and ramp work remaining, as well as asphalt work in the east side of the lot.
Still, “It’s basically safe and finished,” Flynn said.
But scheduled dates continue to change, and that’s causing consternation in the business community.
In April, officials said the work could be complete about 30 days after the Lavender Festival in mid-June. Then, in early July, they said installation of the custom-built interactive fountain could start July 27, with renovations expected to be complete by the end of August.
Now, that completion date has been extended again. Russell said merchants voted to close the parking lot on the assumption that the work would be completed in three to six months. The other option had been to do the work in quadrants, he said.
“They keep pushing the date,” Russell said. “It’s costing everybody else up here money…It’s irresponsible.”
Wendy Holloway, who owns Cutie Patooties Repeat Boutique, said she had to close her Jackson Square store seven weeks after construction started.
“Starting on the first day (of) construction, my revenue dropped, up to 90 percent at times, and with the store being my sole income, I had no choice but to close the doors,” Holloway said.
She said she didn’t make enough in January to pay rent, and she did 82 percent less in sales in the entire month of January than the previous January.
“There were days that my store wasn’t even accessible, many days it wasn’t handicap accessible, and a large portion of my customer base was grandparents, pregnant women, and families with small children,” Holloway said.
“I’m still quite upset that I was forced to close my business of two years that I put every drop of my savings into as well as countless hours of work and my blood, sweat, and tears,” she said. “I know it will be beautiful when complete, but I certainly understand the immense frustration of the merchants.”
Remaining merchants have complimented the city for working hard to get the square ready for the Lavender Festival.
“At the same time, there have been many delays,” said Seivers, citing a new electrical contractor and the fountain change. “We’re left with a huge question mark, and people are in pain.”
He said business owners are generally grateful that part or most of the lot was opened in late July, but tempers are high.
“I don’t really blame them,” Seivers said.
He said the issues are complex, and the city has been responsive. Seivers said he’s seen no evidence that the city has “drug its feet,” but merchants are “often in the dark.”
“All we know is it’s still not finished, and tempers are flaring,” Seivers said.
Now, some merchants are suggesting scrapping the fountain all together. Several said they never wanted the fountain, and other merchants didn’t either.
But on Thursday, Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said the $741,609 Tennessee Department of Transportation grant used for the parking lot renovation required aesthetic landscaping, and it is meant to improve public spaces. The grant might not have been awarded to Oak Ridge if it was intended to be used just to pave a parking lot, she said.
In any case, it’s too late to drop the fountain. It was always an incorporated feature, Baldwin said. The city will be able to turn off the fountain for large events, and it can be used for other purposes.
At Monday’s Council meeting, Danl Hall, project manager for Vaughn and Melton Consulting Engineers Incorporated, which is helping the city with the project, said the remaining work at Jackson Square includes irrigation, landscaping, tree planting, and installation of the fountain, including its electrical systems and power pedestals.
Angel Rich, president of the contractor, Rich Construction Inc. of Lenoir City, did not speak to City Council, but her attorney, Robert Noell of Woolf McClane Law Firm in Knoxville, did, offering explanations and answering questions from Council members. Rich also declined to comment to Oak Ridge Today last week.
Noell told City Council members there was a delay in the approval of electrical components, and a submittal that had been expected to be completed in February wasn’t finished until June, about four months later. But it wasn’t clear who might have been responsible for the apparent delay, whether the contractor, the city, or someone else.
In response to questions, Noell told Chinn that he didn’t know if it was necessarily productive at this time to dig into the question of “what went wrong.”
But Chinn said he thought it was an appropriate time to seek an answer to that question since it wasn’t clear if City Council would have another opportunity to do so.
Some questions have been raised about potential penalties. There is a liquidated damages clause in the $1 million contract with Rich Construction that allows damages of $740 for each day of delay past the expected completion date in early July. A notice to proceed was issued January 5, and the work was supposed to be substantially completed within 180 days, with exceptions for holidays.
But city officials said any damages will have to be negotiated. Watson said the contractor will likely offer reasons for the delay, and the city will have to hear them.
“I think we’re just trying to get that project completed,” Watson said. “We’ll try to get it done.”
Watson said the square will remain a construction zone until the work is completed and approved by the city, the city engineer, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Flynn said any damages assessed would be in the form of a reduced final payment to Rich Construction. The city would then in turn receive less money from the state.
Among the reported delays in the Jackson Square project have been unusual wintry weather in February and a change in the fountain vendor that caused Rich Construction to revise its construction plans, according to city officials. Workers had expected to start construction at the center of the square, where the fountain will be, but they reversed course and worked on the perimeter first. There have been other delays, including wet weather and keeping the project within budget, officials said. City officials have pointed out that state officials are also involved with the project, including by signing off on its completion.
Gooch said the question about when the work might be completed is now one of two primary questions in Oak Ridge. The other is: When will ground be broken on Main Street Oak Ridge, the redevelopment of the former Oak Ridge Mall?
Council members said they want to see what lessons can be learned from the Jackson Square project, and they hope to avoid having similar problems and delays on subsequent developments, whether Main Street Oak Ridge or the addition of the eighth lane at the rowing course.
At Jackson Square, the protests continue. Goldstein has recently had a sign posted on his blue Saturn station wagon in the front of the parking lot that says “Finish This Fiasco!” He previously posted a sign that said “Free Our Parking Lot.”
Goldstein said he saw people working diligently leading up to the Lavender Festival, but then he saw little activity in the two weeks after the festival.
“I haven’t seen any machinery, just guys with shovels,” Goldstein said in an interview in early July.
“I”m not against the city,” he said. “The city is my partner. I want them to apply as much pressure and see about getting this done.”
Aware of the frustrations, Oak Ridge officials met with Jackson Square merchants at Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Lab and Kitchen on Wednesday, July 29. Gooch said they had an informal discussion and discussed the timeline and what to do in the meantime.
“We’re just trying to move this process along,” Gooch said.
There was “some venting,” Watson said.
It was after that meeting that officials said they planned to set up the two readerboard signs on the Turnpike.
The Oak City City Council awarded the construction contract to Rich Construction in October. Officials and business owners have said the project was ready to begin in December, but merchants didn’t want it to start in the middle of the holiday season so it was postponed until after January 1.
The work is funded with help from a $741,609 Tennessee Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant that was awarded to the city in June 2012. The TDOT grant covers 80 percent of the work, and it requires a 20 percent city match.
The work is reported to be the first major renovation at Jackson Square in 70 years. Even business owners who have been hurt by the temporary closure of the parking lot have said Jackson Square will look good when the work is complete.
The work will include a landscaped pedestrian plaza with parking, the interactive fountain, stone pavers, curbing, asphalt paving, utilities, benches, sidewalks, and upgrades under the American with Disabilities Act. Construction started in January.
The city’s share of the project has been estimated at $293,617. The project was announced in a press conference featuring Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Event photos recreated, to some extent, the famous “War Ends!” photo taken in Jackson Square at the end of World War II.
Watson has said the renovation will update Jackson Square and make it more inviting.
The city improved the Farmers Market parking lot on the north side of Broadway to help with parking while the Jackson Square parking lot is being renovated.
The concerns of Jackson Square merchants were compounded earlier this summer after the Oak Ridge City Council in June approved renovation of the lower parking lot at Blankenship Field. That meant that two of the three parking lots in the area were under construction. The only one that remained open is the lot used by the Oak Ridge Farmers Market on the north side of Broadway. Employees at nearby businesses like Jacobs Engineering who once used the Blankenship Field lot started using the Farmers Market lot, creating more parking problems for merchants and customers at Jackson Square.
But as of Monday, the Blankenship Field parking lot had been paved and striped, and officials expect that project to be complete before the first home football game on August 21. Officials and volunteers expect that work to be one part of a much larger, more expensive redo of the football field and Jack Armstrong Stadium.
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