BEDFORD — Starting Monday, the city of Bedford's slogan, "Building a Better Bedford," is going to take on a very real feel for those who work and travel through downtown Bedford.
Construction will begin on the downtown streetscape project, part of the city's Stellar Communities initiative. Completed in phases, construction is expected to last through June 25, 2018. Work will initiate at J Street, starting at 14th Street at the Milwaukee Depot and proceed south to 17th Street.
New sidewalks, including a widened sidewalk on J Street to accommodate a pedestrian trail, seating areas, handicapped ramps, bicycle racks and bump-outs at the corners to improve pedestrian safety are all part of the $2.1 million project. Weddle Bros. of Bloomington was awarded the project. It is among several downtown projects that have been funded through the Stellar Communities initiative.
The city has touted the project as part of a larger downtown revitalization effort focused on enhancing walkability, safety and visual appeal that will include a facade restoration and the construction of a three-story building at 15th and J streets that will bring arts and education downtown.
But as the start of construction nears, some downtown merchants are concerned how their businesses will be affected by torn-up sidewalks and limited parking, whereas others are excited to see new investment in downtown.
John Crane is the owner of Crane's Leather and Shoe Shop, 1605 J St., which sells and repairs shoes and boots and carries an extensive selection of clothing and accessories. He said he is concerned his customers won't come downtown during the work, especially if they can't find parking.
"I have a lot of elderly customers who need to park in front of the door," he said.
He's also concerned that the new curbs, which will be much higher than the curbs in front of his business now, will send rain water into his store and will be difficult for older people to step over.
He took some of his questions to a project meeting in January.
"When no one can answer a question with a definite answer, that concerns me," Crane said.
City leaders and project managers have held meetings with downtown merchants to inform them of the pace of the project and efforts by the contractor to minimize disruption to their businesses.
"Will this be an inconvenience? Yes. But our objective is for all businesses to remain open and available to the public in as safe a manner as possible," said Marla Jones, business and community development director for the city.
Work will be done in 60-foot increments, which is about two storefronts at a time. Jones said this is being done to lessen the disruption as much as possible. When work is taking place in of a business, either a wooden or metal ramp or gravel will be in place to allow entrance to the business.
"If a business has special clientele needs, they should contact us," she said. "We want to work with business owners to keep all businesses open during construction."
Mike and Debbie Hicks are owners of Group One, an insurance and travel agency at 1536 I St. The Hicks have been downtown for 13 years after moving from the old Stone City Mall.
"I don't have big concerns about it," said Debbie. "Hopefully, it won't be too intensive for too long a time. We do have quite a few people who come in because they want to talk to us face to face. But we also do a ton of trips by phone and email."
Hicks said moving her business downtown was a good decision.
"We don't have as many people who just walk in like we did at the mall," she said. "So that did hurt us. Having fewer businesses downtown hurts everyone. But I believe if we can make the square attractive and fill up those empty storefronts that's going to be a big benefit for all of us."
Mark and Misty Pate, owners of Wildflower Antiques and Primitives, 1524 I St., are among the newest to start a business downtown. The couple, originally from Anderson, opened their shop in 2015. They have some worries about customers who won't want to navigate dust and debris, but are mostly optimistic about the changes coming to downtown.
"We're excited for it," said Misty. "We want the square to be a destination like it used to be. We have met with Marla, (Mayor) Shawna Girgis and they are working so hard to work around everyone's needs. I'm confident in the plans they have laid out."
The couple both have day jobs and the antique store, which is open Thursday through Saturday, is a hobby and business rolled into one.
"We have a different viewpoint because we don't rely on it to pay our bills," said Mark. "But I do worry that the phase of construction for I Street will bleed into November and that is a crucial shopping time for us."
Anthony Owens is another newcomer to downtown. He's the owner of Upside Prints, a screen printing business at 1011 15th St.
After living elsewhere for several years, Owens moved his family back to Bedford. He believes downtown Bedford can be a vibrant place like he remembers it in the 1990s. He described revitalization as a snowball effect.
"If a business does fairly well and others see that, they are more likely to invest in downtown," he said.
His business is just west of the streetscape project, but as a downtown business owner, he wants to see all of downtown thrive and doesn't want to see any business suffer because of construction.
"When you look at the big picture, it's going to be positive thing and it will be really pretty when it's finished — if we can weather the time frame of construction," he said. "I'm not as worried because we have 54 online clothing stores, and we do a lot of out-of-state stuff. I'm thankful for walk-ins, but that's not our lifeline."
Ashly Echavarria, manager of the Olde Downtown Tavern, is also encouraged by the city's investment in downtown. Her boss, Jeremy Thompson, just bought the bar a few weeks ago. The 16th Street business is just west of the construction, and Echavarria doesn't expect to be affected by construction.
"I think it's going to be pretty awesome and will help the downtown," she said. "It sounded like it would be more pedestrian-friendly and will make access better for everyone."
As for Crane, who has been in business for 41 years, he isn't convinced the streetscape project is the answer to bringing business back to downtown.
From his J Street shop where he has worked alongside his son J.R. and other family members for the past 25 years, he has seen a handful of downtown revitalization efforts, but looks out from his store and doesn't see much progress.
"Everything they do runs people off," he said. "Forty-one years ago it was the place to be. Downtown has become mostly lawyers and offices. Businesses don't want to come downtown."
Hicks, on the other hand, believes in downtown's potential.
"I think downtown could thrive again. There is a huge advantage to being downtown because there are hundreds of people downtown working here. This project is going to enhance the square and make it more beautiful."