BROOKSVILLE - Gary Press, owner of the Palm Tree Café, said he has run other businesses and lived through many road projects in his time, but the State Road 50 widening is one of the most badly managed.
"It's killing me," said Press, who took over management of the café in Mariner Square in October. "Our customers don't even know we're here."
Florida's Department of Transportation is widening the highway to six lanes from U.S. 19 to the Suncoast Parkway. The contractor on the $39-million project, D.A.B. Constructors, has until the end of 2015 to complete the work. Hernando Today recently learned the project is about two months behind schedule.
Press' restaurant is at the intersection of State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard, which could be called ground zero for the project because of the wealth of retailers on both sides of the street.
What infuriates Press and other business owners is that state transportation officials closed a key median access and now customers must queue up at one of two or so entrances, making it difficult to drive.
"I've been all over the country and you don't kill turn lanes into shopping centers," Press said.
Closing accesses into shopping centers is a good way to kill a business and discourage people from patronizing a restaurant or store, he said. "There's no way to get in here (Mariner Square) so they figure, 'Why come?'" Press said.
For now, Press said, he will try to wait out construction because conditions likely will improve once the widening is complete. Until then he's trying to get people to notice his business. He put balloons outside the café and recently got permission for a $250 sign he will erect by the roadway so people know the café is open.
"We're doing what can to keep it going," he said.
Greg Gruner, owner of Complete Automotive Care, at 16378 State Road 50, said he has been dealing with construction on the roadway for about 20 years, back when the first widening of the road occurred.
It's difficult to determine the effect construction has on businesses, given the bad economy in general, the real estate market crash and other factors affecting Hernando County, he said.
"But this doesn't help," Gruner said of the latest widening project.
"I'm still in business so it hasn't hurt me to the point that it put me out," Gruner said. "But I wish it would be done once and for all. It probably never will."
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Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, said construction projects can be frustrating for merchants and might deter customers.
That's why it's important, she said, for business owners in close proximity to band together and come up with creative ways to attract patrons. "Work together, advertise together and resource together," Crowley said.
Perhaps some kind of coupon program that would allow customers to visit multiple stores in one plaza would help build a traffic pattern and give potential patrons a reason to visit a plaza surrounded by barricades and construction, she said.
"The end result is when this is completed, it's going to be a great thoroughfare for the business community," Crowley said. "The retail community is definitely going to prosper once this is completed."
John Mitten, franchise owner of the Brooksville Chick-fil-A restaurant, said he is more fortunate than smaller merchants because he has the resources of the national chain.
Even so, he said, the construction project hurts, especially with closure of the median that allowed motorists to enter his restaurant just east of Mariner Boulevard.
Mitten said he did a traffic count before the median closed, and determined 140 to 190 vehicles used it hourly. Now all those cars are funneled to an entrance by the Walmart store or by Mariner Boulevard.
Mitten said his catering orders have increased recently, and he attributes it to the road project.
"People, instead of traveling to us, they will order online for catering and we will deliver to them," Mitten said. "(People) don't feel safe traveling that road right now."
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson recently said the widening project is almost two months behind schedule. But she said transportation officials are confident the contractor will regain lost time and, once drainage work is done, motorists should see more visible signs of construction along the heavily traveled road.
County Commissioner Jim Adkins said he has heard from business owners who complain they are losing customers and are upset because they don't see much progress on the widening.
"Businesses are struggling right now, and if you have anything that would give a negative impact on people traveling on that road, (they) might not go to that business and that's a problem," Adkins said.
Adkins said it would be nice if D.A.B would speed up the project.
"I know a lot of people would like to see some (new) pavement and the barricades removed," he said.