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As Completion Of Argonne Underpass Approaches, Nearby Merchants Are Eager To Get … Back In Business

If the Argonne underpass construction project has been an ordeal for Valley motorists, consider the plight of many nearby merchants.

Since the detours went up 15 months ago, routing traffic away from Argonne Village, declinng sales have forced three businesses have moved out of the shopping center. Merchants that remain say they have had to cut back store hours and lay off employees to compensate for business that is down as much as 70 percent.

Now, with the opening of the underpass less than three weeks away many of these same business owners are upset that the county is asking them to help finance an advertising campaign to announce the completion of the $10 million, 15-month project.

“I think it’s ridiculous that they’re asking us to” contribute to the advertising campaign, said Kevin Olson, who owns Super Save Drug Center in Argonne Village.

The first car is scheduled to pass under the railroad tracks Oct. 14. In an effort to help bring traffic back to the area, county officials recently approached 51 merchants near the new underpass with a plan to advertise its opening. In return for a contribution to the county’s kick-off efforts, businesses would be mentioned in advertising.

That proposal steamed several merchants who said it puts them in an awkward situation. Many have planned their own advertising to win back customers and do not have money to throw into the county’s marketing kitty.

Further, they have already suffered a large blow to their businesses and said the county should be able to pay for its own advertising costs.

But some, like Olson, are worried that not participating in the county’s advertising plan will send potential customers a negative message.

Olson is one of 10 members of the Argonne Village Merchants Association, which must decide by Oct. 1 if it wants to ante up.

The merchants association plans to put the dilemma to a vote. Most members said they plan to do whatever the association decides.

Other merchants with businesses along Argonne, Montgomery and Trent also are considering their options.

“We’re undecided what we’re going to do,” Olson said. “We don’t want to cut our throats.”

County spokesman Chad Hutson, who has helped coordinate the advertising effort, said the intent was not to take advantage of businesses. The county wants to shoulder some of the responsibility of drawing motorists back to the area, Hutson said.

Contributions, which can be either monetary or in-kind, are voluntary, Hutson said. The advertising will be done with or without contributions from businesses, he said.

“We want to do it as a partnership because we’ve impacted a lot of businesses there,” he said. “Any construction project will, and I think we should try to help get people back there.

“Whatever (merchants) want to kick in would help offset that cost.”

But several business owners don’t want to absorb any of the cost. They said it’s insensitive of the county to even ask, pointing to hardships the construction has brought them.

“There’s some mixed feelings there,” said Judy Bagge, who serves as a liaison for the 10-member Argonne Village Merchants Association. “Some of them are pretty volatile.”

Several of the business owners also blamed the media for driving customers away. Newspaper articles and television stories painted an exaggerated picture of the traffic woes near the underpass, they said.

A significant drop in business forced Olson to lay off three full-time employees at the drug store and cut back store hours.

Owners at the Hungry Farmer Restaurant and Pet City have faced similar struggles to keep their businesses alive.

“We’ve had to double and triple our advertising as it is to try to keep some sort of business,” said Karen Shanion, owner of the Hungry Farmer.

Business is down about 70 percent at the restaurant and lounge, she said. That has meant not filling part-time positions when people quit and cutting back hours for full-time employees.

“We’ve just kept a skeleton crew,” Shanion said.

Other businesses were not as fortunate. The Crafter’s Showcase, From Our House to Yours and Six Star discount store all moved.

Crafter’s Showcase owner Bob Hitchcock said his store limped along for several months while he spent $1,700 a month on television advertisements. Sewer work on Montgomery this summer combined with the impact of the underpass construction nearly broke it, forcing him to close.

“In that 30-day period of time people learned not to come down Montgomery,” Hitchcock said. “They learned to take the freeway or another route.”

Hitchcock, who said he lost more than $100,000, reopened the craft store at 14401 E. Sprague earlier this month.

“We did everything we could to stay in there and we couldn’t,” Hitchcock said.

Bette Buechler ran From Our House to Yours, a gift shop, for seven years in the middle silo at Argonne Village. Surrounded by an empty parking lot and struggling stores, business dropped to “almost nothing” during the construction. In January, Buechler moved the shop to her home.

“People don’t like to come to an area that looks depressed,” Buechler said. “And that’s what it started to look like - depressed.”

Across Montgomery from Argonne Village, Ace Hardware also has suffered. Business dropped about 35 percent during construction, owner Jim Jopson said.

But he plans on contributing to the county’s advertising effort anyway.

“What the county has suggested is that we could get more bang for our buck if we pool our resources,” Jopson said. “I thought it was pretty smart of the county.

“I was very pleased that they were at least concerned with the trials and tribulations of us down here.”

Like the rest of the area’s business owners, Jopson is eager to put the construction behind him and lure customers back. And no matter who sends that message, businesses and county officials said it should be the same.

“Try us back,” Shanion said. “Try the new road. A lot of money went into that project.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)