Bethany Beach officials this week underscored the Memorial Day deadline that has been a target for the town’s Streetscape improvements project, aiming to calm concerns that the project could still be ongoing when the summer season begins.
Currently, they’re in the middle of the second phase of the project, which is set to offer sidewalk and curb improvements, ADA-standard upgrades to existing curb ramps, traffic calming elements and new lighting and parking configurations.
The project was anticipated to start in September 2013; however, due to delays, construction did not begin until Dec. 2, and progress has been further hampered by the cold, wet winter. That led Town Manager Cliff Graviet to report last week that the project could potentially run past Memorial Day or need to be finished in the fall.
Vice-Mayor Lew Kilmer emphasized this week that both DelDOT and A Del Construction, which is overseeing the project, have made a commitment to complete the project by Memorial Day.
“They’re going to be put on multiple shifts — at least two shifts — with multiple crews to finish the project,” Killmer said. “Obviously, everything else is weather-dependent, but even with some inclement weather between now and Memorial Day, they still feel they can complete the project on time.
“There are some small adjustments at the end of the project — something to do with pavers — but, overall, it’ll be total access to Garfield Parkway, hopefully, by Memorial Day, if not a few days after that.”
Killmer said that A Del’s projected completion of the project by Memorial Day factors in bad-weather days.
“Even factoring those in, they’re committed to finishing by Memorial Day, with only little minor touchups after. The equipment will be out, streets will be open, parking will be available,” he said. “The State has been part of the team that’s working on getting this done. They’re just as happy to get out of here as we are.”
At the March 21 council meeting, Graviet had noted that businesses owners had requested that the project start in October, rather than September, to give them an extra month of the shoulder season and continue with scheduled town events.
“In our meeting last spring, the business community was adamant that the project not begin in September, that it be pushed back to begin after Columbus Day,” Graviet said at the March 21 meeting. “They felt starting the project in September would negatively impact their shoulder-season business. And, even though it was pointed out to them that a late start could push the project into Memorial Day and over, with one exception, at this very well-attended meeting, every business owner wanted — demanded, if you will — that the project not start until October.”
“There was no demanding,” said Dana Banks, owner of The Parkway restaurant located on Garfield Parkway. “It makes it sound like we were in there fist-slamming and raising our voices. The meeting was very calm. We talked about all the events the Town tried to build up… And asking — there’s no harm in asking.”
Killmer said that he believes Graviet’s comment at the Town’s council meeting was misconstrued.
“We’re not pointing any fingers at the businesses,” he said. “Let’s just all work together on this common goal. We should focus on getting this done, getting the contractor out of there, and making it an absolutely beautiful downtown setting.”
Jackie Inman, owner of Bethany Beach Books, said that Graviet had been invited to that meeting, as well all the other Bethany Business Forum meetings, but has never attended.
“What it comes down to, for me — I don’t want to start pointing fingers, and I don’t appreciate when others start pointing fingers,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
“I knew this construction was going to happen. I prepared for it, and I understand it. Again, we’re going through the process, we’re doing the best we can. We know what to expect from last year, but we shouldn’t be playing a blame game. It’s not the Town, and it’s not the businesses.”
Banks said the only Bethany Beach official at that meeting was Public Works Director Brett Warner.
Businesses asked for delay, but work started even later
“It was just for us to listen about the next phase of the Streetscape and for Jack [Burbage] to talk about the proposed hotel. At that point, Brett was the only person from the Town there,” she explained. “We did go round-table and requested if it would be possible to wait until Columbus Day weekend, knowing how many activities we had for the month of September, that the Town had built up. The biggest example was the triathlon… We had just gotten the triathlon to Bethany the year before and were concerned where it would go.”
With September of 2013 bringing only the second year the First Responders Triathlon in Bethany — drawing hundreds of people to the resort community — businesses were hoping to get more patrons prior to the start of construction.
“The Town said that they didn’t think that that was going happen, but they could guarantee that it would happen after the triathlon,” said Inman.
Banks echoed Inman, stating that events bring more people into the downtown area, which is a boost for business.
“They shop and eat, and it helps the entire district. Most towns, it’s kind of unheard of that you can close the main street in a town for over seven months and expect anyone to survive that, even though most of the town is closed.”
Banks said that, once it was said that construction would begin after Columbus Day weekend, businesses were prepared and expecting construction to begin immediately.
“We asked for Columbus Day weekend. We assumed Tuesday they would be out there just tearing it up. We were all excited.”
The Wags, Witches & Warlocks Halloween event was canceled, because the project was supposed to begin prior to the event.
“DelDOT did not start on the project until late November — not due to weather, not due to the Town not giving them access and not due to the businesses requesting that they wait until the end of November,” said Inman. “Then, there were several weeks in November that were absolutely beautiful — especially around Christmas through New Year’s — where there was not one worker out there. The weeks that were beautiful were not utilized.”
She said that, after the project had been delayed past the expected October start date, there were notices stating that construction would begin Nov. 25, the Monday before Thanksgiving.
“I did send an email to the Town asking, as the project had been pushed back for a number of weeks already, if it would be possible to wait to begin construction until after the holiday,” said Banks. “They said, ‘No.’ In that email, it was stated they were going to work through that week and possibly the weekend. The road was blocked off Nov. 25, and the first day of construction was the following Monday, Dec. 2.”
Banks said that the businesses were not ignorant to what the Streetscape project would bring but did not expect it to go over schedule.
“We knew that the north side of Garfield’s project had taken three months. It started Feb. 21 and ended May 21. So I think, in asking for an additional four weeks, we didn’t fear that we were going to turn it into what is now a seven-month, possibly eight-month project,” she said. “I believe Memorial Day will take it up to seven months, from when they blocked the road off.”
Businesses concerned delays will hurt more
Banks said that, every day, she posts on The Parkway’s Facebook page the weather and whether or not there is construction work taking place.
“Our question as business owners is why aren’t they working until the sun goes down, or at night?” she asked. “I have to work as many hours and days as it takes to get the job done. That’s why we want to see them out every minute, weather permitting.”
Killmer acknowledged that watching the progress of the project can be frustrating.
‘Some people get very frustrated, ‘Well, it’s a beautiful day — there’s nobody out there.’ They can’t work if the ground is saturated,” he explained. “It is a process, it is moving forward and, hopefully, it’ll all be done on time, along with N. Pennsylvania Avenue,” Killmer said.
“I know it’s frustrating from a lot of people’s points of view. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to work together to get this done on time and have a great successful summer season.
“I hope everyone understands that this is multifaceted,” he added. “This is a State project. They own Garfield Parkway. They own the sidewalks. They hired the contractors. They’re supplying the money. As much as they listen to us — and we’re in daily contact with them — it’s still their project.”
Kilmer was quick to point out that DelDOT has been helpful throughout the entire process of both phases of the project.
“They’ve been very positive about working with us. This has been a very unusual weather situation,” he emphasized. “A lot of wet weather, a lot of snow, a lot of wind, a lot of days that they couldn’t work.”
Inman said that, although the businesses do not have any communication with DelDOT, they are kept well informed by the Town.
“We don’t have anything to do with DelDOT. For the businesses to give any perspective to DelDOT, we go through the Town, and they’ve been very helpful. This particular circumstance was absolutely unfounded,” she said. “We just had a great meeting with Town representative Lew Killmer from the council, with over 30 businesses represented.
“There was no hostility from the Town toward the businesses at the time. Lew Killmer and former Mayor Tony McClenny have been instrumental in bridging the gap between the Town and the businesses. Mayor Tony was doing everything he could.”
“There is definitely open communication,” Banks said, while acknowledging that it could still be improved. “The Town only has an obligation to take care of its residents, not its business owners.”
Banks said that, this year, her business is down 50 to 75 percent, having been open since Feb. 13.
“‘Well, why the hell are you open? Why not stay closed?’ — I think that’s what people’s responses will be,” she said of the concerns expressed by the businesses. “I’m only open three days a week. As a businessperson, you have to run it as lean as you can. But I also have an obligation to my employees, who have worked for me for years.
“I also have great local clientele that wanted me to reopen, who support me on weekends. If I didn’t have the clientele that I do, I wouldn’t be here, because no new person driving by will say, ‘Let’s go see what’s open in this town,’ when there are 10 other shops that have their own parking lot.”
Inman agreed, stating that every business owner is doing their best to stay afloat.
“With the delay being pushed back from an early October start date to late November, the impact on my particular business is business is down for this year, but … it was expected, because we were able to see what it was last year,” she said.
“That being said, if the project goes on, my whole loop area is being closed down for this month, if not next month. There’s nowhere for people to park. If the project goes on past Memorial Day, I don’t know how a lot of businesses are going to survive. Nobody is making money right now — we’re just trying to survive.”
Beth Webb, owner of Beach Break Bakrie & Café, said that her business has felt the impact of the construction, as well.
“It’s very hard for any of my regular customers to get here. A lot of them come much more rarely and tell me it’s because it’s too hard to get here,” she said. “There’s no way to get any new customers. You have to rely on your old customers when the roads are closed off like this.”
Webb added that, not only does she have to worry about how the incoming revenue has been affected, but also the rent coming due at Memorial Day.
“For me and a lot of people in resort towns, your rent comes due a third, a third and a third. After that weekend, it’s your first third. So not only do you have to pay a third of your year’s rent, you have to pay for everything to prepare for a big weekend like that,” she said. “The summer season is very short in Bethany. You really only have a small window.”
Killmer said he feels for the businesses in town that are struggling.
“I understand that difficulty and the cost of staying open these seasons,” he said. “I think, with the addition of the hotel, creating events that would be a draw, causing people to come to downtown Bethany Beach, will help in the long run to improve the whole business community.”
Town and businesses working together for brighter future
Inman added that it is important for the Town and its businesses to continue to work together for the good of their community.
“The two have to depend on each other. The town won’t survive without businesses, and people won’t come here if there’s nowhere to eat or buy products. But without the town, the businesses wouldn’t survive,” she said. “After the construction, we all know and believe that the town is going to be a much more beautiful place, and we are excited about the after. It’s just the growing pains that we’re going through right now.”
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” agreed Killmer. “If the businesses aren’t open, people don’t come. At the same time, if the people don’t come, then the businesses don’t stay open. It’s a balancing act. I understand businesses have to see a reason to stay open.”
Banks said that, overall, the project has been very positive, in regards to what it will do for the downtown area.
“We’re all happy that the electric lines are gone. It’s beautiful. We thought the sidewalks look great,” she said. “I think, overall, the town will look great. When all is said and done, we think it will attract people and make it safer for our visitors. We knew this was coming and think it’s for the better of the town.”
“Our hopes are that the businesses and the Town will be able to continue with their working relationship that we’ve grown over the last four years,” added Inman. “We’re hoping we have a wonderful-weather spring, where DelDOT is able to work six days a week, with the Town lifting the Saturday ban, … giving them the opportunity to work as much as they can.”
Killmer said the town’s numerous projects will have a “synergistic effect,” with the Streetscape, potential hotel, events and business offerings — but in baby steps.
“This is all going to bring a lot more people into the town,” he said. “The town is going to be gorgeous when the Streetscape is done — nice wide, welcoming sidewalks, landscaping, with the proper lighting. It will be the family-friendly downtown community, with a variety of stores much more amenable to a year-round community.
“There will be even more of a reason to come down to shop, eat and enjoy a downtown community along the coast,” he predicted.
Killmer said that, after he recently attended a downtown development meeting hosted by the University of Delaware, the need for the Streetscape project was reiterated.
“There was a speaker there that said something that really stuck with me. He basically said, ‘Charm sells.’ I think, at the end of the day, when the Streetscape project is all completed and everyone is out of there, the charm of the downtown will absolutely sparkle, from our outstanding horticulturist, Melinda Lindy, to removing the poles… We have a vibrant, beautiful downtown area.”
He added that the Town plans to continue working with the businesses to help make the construction go as smoothly as possible, especially when it comes to future work.
“At the end of the day, when all is said and done, and when the State deeds that part of Route 26 to the Town, it gives us a whole other opportunity in the future, of us controlling what happens in our timelines, with our contractors. That’ll be very positive in the future, that it will be a Town-owned street.”