Thoroughfare progress, growing pains continue

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By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Dining on fried catfish and bacon-wrapped meatloaf with orange construction barrels just feet away seems almost natural to Deryl and Pat Brendle.
The couple regularly dines at Fresh Market Cafe on South Gloster Street, traveling across town through long traffic lines and construction that begins near their east Tupelo home and picks up again near the eatery.
Fans of fresh, made-from-scratch cooking, the Brendles continue eating at the local business in spite of the trouble getting there.
“It’s a nightmare,” Deryl Brendle said of the construction, pausing from his corn souffle. “But it’s just a fact of life.”
While not always appreciated by drivers and businesses in construction zones, Tupelo’s Major Thoroughfare Program has improved navigation through the city for more than 20 years. Started in 1991, the city initiative with an annual budget of about $4 million depends on taxpayer approval every five years to continue constructing improved streets, bridges and other infrastructure to make travel in Tupelo less congested.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said the forward thinking of city leaders to create the thoroughfare program embodies what sets Tupelo apart from other cities in the state and elsewhere that have significant infrastructure issues and uncertain ways to pay for them. He said Tupelo’s tradition of supporting community needs has helped make it the city that other communities look to as a model.
“That’s the way you’re supposed to do municipal government,” Wiseman said of Tupelo, citing the thoroughfare program.
However, despite forethought put into the program, business owners continue to struggle with construction interfering with customers shopping along affected areas.
For the South Gloster Street project, businesses have waited longer than expected for construction to end. It’s already past the scheduled completion date of Dec. 31, and it likely will continue into late spring.
Mike O’Hara, part owner of Fresh Market Cafe, said the business opened just a month before construction began out front. The roadwork had an immediate negative impact.
“The day after construction started, our business dropped 30 percent,” he said. “It’s been like that ever since.”
Businesses lined along South Gloster report a significant decrease to their bottom line, all attributing the $6.5 million project as a key culprit. Instead of tending to customers at Jimmy’s Portable Buildings, 1105 South Gloster St., operations manager Jim Curry said the situation has made his work a solitary experience.
“I just sit here and watch the traffic,” he said, looking outside from his office at a lot of plenty of inventory and no customers. “I’ve sat here for three straight days without anyone coming in here.”
While a strain on business is reported, few residents familiar with the area disagree that the project to widen the roadway from four lanes to five isn’t needed. Weather-related delays and discovering undocumented underground utilities has kept the project behind schedule. Carson Neal, an engineer with Cook Coggin Engineers, which manages the project, said 75 percent of the work is complete on the project.
While hiccups happen in construction projects, Greg Pirkle, chairman of the MTP committee, said lasting results help traffic flow and improve economic development opportunities for the area.
“Our quality of life is so much better now because you can take your kid to a city park and get in and out from most parts of the city,” he said. “There’s a consistent regard for improved thoroughfare in the city.”
On East Main Street, another key part of the city project, residents and businesses have grumbled about the bumpy drive resulting from months of construction.
A few days ago, the street received a base level of paving, quieting some of the grumbles.
For one new business to the area, Budget Dollar, east Tupelo’s street improvements may be too much to keep it in business. After opening in late 2011, owner Mike Freeman said his sales dropped by 50 percent when construction began in front of his store.
“My customers still come,” he said. “But they come less frequently.”
While the $3 million East Main Street project is a few weeks ahead of schedule, work will likely continue there through July. And after that section is completed, the city will begin a second phase of the east Tupelo project that will widen bridges between Veteran’s Boulevard and the Fairpark downtown area, along with enhancing the area with bike lanes and sidewalks from downtown to Elvis Presley’s birthplace.
While asking for patience during construction, Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis said the improvements in east Tupelo will transform the area, better connecting it physically and symbolically to the rest of the city.
“We’ve waited so long in east Tupelo to have this work done,” Davis said. “I think we’ll have one of the most attractive roadways in Tupelo when it’s all done.”
In the northern part of the city, the third active part of the Major Thoroughfare Program is the Northern Loop, a nearly $30 million project that includes about five miles of roadway. While the street has been paved, work continues on two bridges there. Construction of the bridge at the Natchez Trace began in February, while the bridge at Highway 78 will begin construction in six to eight weeks, said John White of Engineering Solutions Inc., responsible for managing the Northern Loop project.
White said the Northern Loop project should be complete in the fall or winter of 2014.
While businesses may suffer financially during the construction, O’Hara, the restaurant owner, said he wasn’t bitter.
“When it ends, it’ll leave a tremendous benefit,” he said.
robbie.ward@journalinc.com