David Jones and his business partners would never have sunk $750,000 into their new bar and lounge called Soundbar on South Limestone had they known the street would soon be closed and torn up.
"No way," he said.
While he and his partners were applying for permits and going through all the red tape it takes to open a new business, no one in the local government told them that South Limestone, between the Avenue of Champions and Vine Street, would be closed to most traffic for at least four months, possibly beginning in early to mid-July.
No one told them that section of South Limestone would be at least partially closed for another eight months after that, he said.
Nonetheless, plans call for the road to undergo major improvements, many of which have been on the books for years. Sanitary and storm-sewer lines are to be replaced, utility lines buried, a dedicated bike lane established and wider sidewalks and new street lights installed. Street trees, rain gardens and limestone markers also will be added.
Government officials want to start the work this summer and get it done in a year's time.
"We are trying to accomplish several projects at the same time and have put together an aggressive time table to minimize the impact," said an e-mail attributed to Michael Webb, the Urban County Government's commissioner of public works and development. "Doing projects simultaneously saves money and reduces the impact."
Mayor Jim Newberry is aware of the challenges facing businesses on the street and shares their concern, said spokeswoman Susan Straub. "We will do everything we can to assist them," she said.
However, she rejected the idea that city officials haven't been forthcoming with those who own property along South Limestone.
"We started public meetings on this project for businesses in the winter of '08," Straub said. "We have gone door to door. For the last meeting, we sent certified registered letters to property owners and went door to door to contact businesses because people had not come to previous meetings."
A ghost town?
Still, Jones is worried that Soundbar, which opened its doors May 8, and more than two dozen other businesses in the area won't survive such a major upheaval.
Most of them knew about the improvements, but many did not know the work would completely close the street for a long time until Wednesday, when city officials met with them.
"I don't think anybody knew they were planning such a drastic shutdown of such a major traffic artery," Jones said. "What they're going to wind up with is an absolutely beautiful street that's a ghost town."
Beth Hanna, owner of Hanna's on Lime restaurant, called the situation "terrifying and worrisome."
"In our viewpoint, it's going to basically put us out of business," said Hanna, who has about seven part-time employees.
To deal with the situation, she and others have started the South Limestone Business Owners Association. Members of the association met Sunday at Hanna's restaurant, 214 South Limestone Street.
"We're kind of wondering why is this being railroaded through in one year, and can it even be completed in one year?" Hanna said.
Project still in limbo
Harold Tate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, told business owners at the meeting that the city will send a notice to the 20 prospective bidders Monday clarifying that they will be expected to propose ways to minimize the effect on shops. That could include allowing some traffic on the street, he said.
Bids for the work aren't scheduled to be opened until June 19, Tate said.
There is a slim chance that the project won't be done as planned if a contractor cannot be found to meet the city's time line and budget for the work. But, he said, "I would say it's pretty much a go. This has been something that's been talked about for six or seven years."
According to Webb, everything possible will be done to assure that businesses can receive their deliveries and that there is pedestrian access to the businesses.
He said cross streets — High and Maxwell and the Avenue of Champions — would generally be open throughout the work and an ambulance access lane will be open on South Limestone for emergency vehicles going to Good Samaritan Hospital.
Urban County Council member Diane Lawless, who represents the area, said officials have told her different stories about how the work would be done.
"I was told all along it would be done in pieces and parts — that there would always be access to businesses," she said. "We need to ensure and assure these businesses that they will be able to continue business or compensate them. These are primarily locally owned businesses that are the backbone of our economy."
Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who attended the meeting Sunday, said it's obvious to him that the city administration hasn't been clear about the extent of the closure.
"As I hear it, still there's not a full understanding," he said.
Gray suggested tapping the experience of officials in Durham, N.C., which recently underwent similar infrastructure improvements that disrupted businesses for only about six months.
Fighting for survival
Rip Sidhu, owner of Bombay Brazier restaurant, whose rent and utilities come to $10,000 a month, said his business won't survive if South Limestone is closed more than a month or two. Fifteen people, including several of his family members, could be out of jobs, he said.
Sidhu said that July to October is a peak time for his business and that no one will want to come to a restaurant where a sewer system is being dug up. Outside dining will be out of the question, he said.
"Is Mr. Mayor going to come into my restaurant and eat? Is the mayor going to support me?" he asked.
Sidhu said he wanted to see Newberry and other city officials "put boots on and walk across the mess."
Peter Mashni, operator of Mashni's Tailor Shop, said he might close the shop, which has been operated by his family for about 40 years, while the street in front of his business is closed. But Mashni is worried about how he would make ends meet in the meantime and whether his old customers would return after he reopened.
"A lot of us can't afford to start over from scratch again," he said. "The whole idea is a nice idea; I just don't think they planned it out well enough."