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Merchants in St. James say roadwork a double-edged sword

A new water main and sewer line are

A new water main and sewer line are under construction on Lake Avenue near the St. James business district. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Merchants along St. James’ Lake Avenue are looking forward to the planned fall completion of roadwork with eagerness but also uncertainty.

The $8 million rebuild will bring smooth asphalt, new parking and aesthetic improvements like news signs. The biggest investments will be underground: a new water main replacing one that was half a century old and a sewer line that for now leads nowhere but could in the future hook up to a planned treatment plant at Gyrodyne, easing wastewater restrictions on dozens of properties lining the hamlet’s main thoroughfare. Roadwork that has closed parts of Lake Avenue for months should be finished by November, when the road will be fully open to traffic, Councilman Tom Lohmann said. In a release, Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said the work was running eight to nine months ahead of schedule. 

But some businesspeople said they had been buffeted both by the road closures, which made it hard for their customers to reach them, and by the pandemic, which forced some to limit operations and constrained demand. 

Gas stations were among the hardest hit. Few customers are willing to go out of their way for a commodity like gasoline, said Bob Keller, who owns the Citgo at Lake Avenue and Fourth Street.

“Customers don’t come here, especially if they don’t know the area,” he said. With Lake Avenue closed he was selling half as much gas as usual. And though he conceded the finished project would contribute to a better business climate for the town overall, he didn’t expect any post-reconstruction bump for himself.

“You never make up for the loss,” he said. “You lose the volume, it’s gone.” 

At the Gulf station at Seventh Street, attendant Juan Reyes echoed Keller’s comments. “Very slow,” he said. On a typical shift before COVID and the rebuild, he might have gassed up 30 or 40 vehicles, he said. On Monday afternoon, he’d gassed up just one car since he came on shift at 7 a.m.

In the stationary store across Lake Avenue, Anthony Capasso said the senior citizens who normally make up much of his clientele were unwilling to follow detours to buy birthday cards, lottery tickets and newspapers. He was frustrated by what he saw as uneven construction progress: “They’re digging a hole before COVID and here it is six months later, they’re digging the same hole,” he said. Lohmann said workers had discovered a collapsed drain system in the area and had replaced it.

Deborah Powers, owner of Hitherbrook Floral and Gift Boutique, said more internet orders had offset a decrease in walk-in business in recent months. Many customers were sending flowers instead of visiting relatives. The Lake Avenue work “really did need to get done,” she said, but she doesn’t predict a renaissance for the area anytime soon. “I know what they want to happen, but I don’t feel it’ll happen for a very long time.”

At St. James Barber Shop, Danny Tokov had to cut down from three barbers to two this spring. Sweet Soul Bakery laid off employees following COVID closures in March, said one of its partners, Michael Stahl. During construction, he’s found that some customers are willing to make detours for his vegan, gluten-free products; he’s also focused on his wholesale business, which doesn’t rely on foot traffic. 

“Hopefully, it’s going to be worth it: the economy recovers and this work pays dividends,” Stahl said. 

Lohmann said the town had made the best of a bad situation. “We used that bad time to the benefit of everybody by getting this project done while everything was closed,” he said. “There weren’t cars on the road, people weren’t patronizing businesses.”

Natalie Weinstein, an interior designer and president of the civic group Celebrate St. James, which pushed for the reconstruction, said the project would be seen as “pivotal.”

The hamlet “was dying before the pandemic,” she said. “Those people who are new in the town, I understand why they have mixed feelings,” she said. “They’re struggling to stay alive.” But the finished rebuild will allow restaurants and cafes to open, she said, driving foot traffic and encouraging people to linger and shop. “Those small businesses will have a future.”

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