By Pete Smith
Every business owner within the vicinity of U.S. 31 knew that hard times would be coming when the state decided it would need to close the thoroughfare in April to begin converting it to a freeway.
And now the first domino has fallen – and it’s a big one.
That’s because Office Depot has closed its anchor store in the shopping plaza on the southeast side of U.S. 31 and Carmel Drive.
Company spokeswoman Julianne Carelli said, “In order to optimize our retail stores and fine-tune our store closing process, Office Depot identified a small number of Office Depot and OfficeMax locations in which to conduct a test before embarking on a larger wave of stores to be closed. One of the stores in the test was the Office Depot Carmel, Indiana, store … that closed on May 31, 2014. We will continue to serve our customers in the area through our other retail stores including an OfficeMax in West Valley City at 14769 Greyhound Plaza, an Office Depot in Indianapolis at 3721 W. 86th Street, or online at officedepot.com or officemax.com.”
And it’s left other businesses unsure if they can survive until the expected U.S. 31 reopening date that INDOT has tentatively scheduled for Thanksgiving.
“It’s killing us. Absolutely killing us,” said a worker at a Carmel institution, Jersey’s Café in Meridian Village Plaza.
Jersey’s owner Blair Laing said it’s gotten so bad that he’s considering relocating to Westfield or Geist.
“I hate to leave Carmel. We’ve been here 25 years, but maybe it’s time to move,” he said, noting that his company is losing $60,000 per month in business based on sales from the previous year.
The slowdown has been even harder on his employees, whose number he had to trim from 35 down to 5.
“We’re running a skeleton crew,” Laing said. “It’s hard on all of us, but we have to do it in order to survive.”
‘We have much less customers’
The loss of foot traffic from an anchor store doesn’t bode well for neighboring businesses that are starved for customers.
La Hacienda restaurant assistant manager Anna Ayala said that her lunch traffic is down 40 percent since the closure and her dinner traffic is down 30 percent. And not even TVs tuned to the World Cup can make a difference.
Some customers miss the food, but they told her they would rather go to the other location at 146th Street and Hazel Dell Parkway than fight the traffic.
Ayala said her restaurant had asked for signs directing drivers on Keystone Parkway to detour routes leading to the U.S. 31 businesses.
“Carmel hasn’t authorized any signs,” she said.
Instead she has tried to establish a $6.99 lunch special with a drink and increase her advertising budget in the hopes of luring new customers.
Huayu Wu, manager of China Garden restaurant in Meridian Village Plaza, said he too has tried increasing his internet advertising with limited results.
“Because of the roads, we have much less customers,” he said, noting that many customers think it’s too hard to drive to the restaurant anymore.
But he’s optimistic about the future and thinks that the new U.S. 31 will be good for business once it’s reopened.
“We’ll be ready for the customers and we promise the food will be very good,” he said.
Some locations doing better than others
The business plaza on the southwest intersection of U.S. 31 and Carmel Drive seems to be weathering the storm better than its two counterparts.
Home to Crown Liquors, Amber Indian restaurant and Bellacino’s Pizza and Grinders, the plaza’s businesses didn’t report a downward trend since the construction began.
Part of that might be attributed to the fact that Carmel Drive is still open and allows drivers to cross U.S. 31, but being on the west side of the work also helps.
Bellacino’s grunt Tealeigh Hutchens said that business has been more variable than anything – something she attributes to west side workers that might previously have eaten on the east side of U.S. 31 but who are now discovering new dining options on the west side.
J. Razzo’s restaurant is on the east side of U.S. 31 south of Carmel Drive, and the restaurant’s experience has been the polar opposite of Bellacino’s.
“It’s been horrible,” said Day Manager Damon Sinkovis. “My lunch is probably 25 percent of what it used to be.”
He said he wishes that news outlets would promote what’s open and accessible instead of what roads are closed.
He said he’s down to just one server for lunch – even with a new $7.95 lunch special – but that attracting new customers has proved difficult because of the perception of traffic.
“I’m not even seeing my regulars,” he said, noting that problems began as soon as U.S. 31 was closed.
“It started just that fast,” Sinkovis said with a snap of the fingers.
And there have been a few bright spots, but with a diminished staff he said he hardly has the manpower to handle a rush of customers.
“It’s been wicked to try and get accustomed to,” he said. “It’s going to be a long haul.”
‘I don’t want you guys to close’
Jersey’s Café draws a huge tourist crowd from all over central Indiana, and owner Laing sees the U.S. 31 construction effort from a broader perspective.
“I think that there should have been a better version of detouring,” he said, noting that it needed to be friendlier to more people than just locals.
Laing said that during past years’ firefighters conferences in Indianapolis, he would have about 500 firefighters trek to his restaurant. This year he had 30.
“People are just scared to death to drive into a construction zone,” he said.
But he also noted that the lack of local customers’ support has made a difference.
He recently saw former regular local customer who he hadn’t seen in about a year. Not since INDOT started building a new roundabout at the entrance to Meridian Village Plaza.
Laing said that the customer told him, “I don’t want you guys to close.”
But in his mind he said all he could think about was how rough it is when no one came to support his business.