In the zone: Business owners share mixed reactions to City of Carmel’s assistance during road construction

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By Viktoria Nasteva

Carmel has had no shortage of construction zones in recent years, with massive overhauls to U.S. 31, Keystone Parkway and Range Line Road redefining what it’s like to drive through the city.

Although many business owners support the city’s long-term goals and appreciate its efforts to assist during construction, others have expressed disappointment in what they describe as a lack of support, communication and compromise during months of road work that directly affect their bottom line.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said the city is doing everything it can to help businesses affected by lengthy construction projects.

“We can’t run their businesses for them, but what we can do is do the projects quickly, use social media to ask people to patronize those businesses,” he said. “We can make sure our infrastructure system doesn’t get bad like other cities so there’s permanent bad impacts for those businesses. By making these investments they have a much better long-term future.”

Larry Johnson, manager of Carmel’s Dairy Queen for the past 27 years, is concerned about the future of his business with Range Line Road under construction between Smokey Row Road and Clay Terrace. The project started in early August and is expected to continue into November. Vehicles can only drive southbound on North Range Line Road, making it tricky to reach the Dairy Queen.

“The city is asking for positivity, and I’m trying,” he said. “I advertise 24/7.”

Johnson has been engaging with the community via Nextdoor and has reached out to local media outlets to share his story. Despite his diligence and the outpouring of support from a loyal base, he said sales have plummeted 60 percent and he has cut employee hours in half, all during a season when he usually expects sales to get him through the slow winter months.

At one point, Johnson said he was disappointed with the city’s efforts to provide directions to affected businesses in the construction zone and that the city didn’t care about the future of his business.

Homecoming night changed that.

Johnson said the city worked with him to continue a Carmel High School homecoming tradition of going to Dairy Queen for a treat. The city promoted the event and provided police officers to direct traffic in the area for seven hours, leading to one of the biggest homecoming nights he’s ever had, Johnson said.

“I have to give the city praise,” he said. “I think they are defending the store.”

Construction crews work on Range Line Road, which is closed to northbound traffic between Smokey Row Road and Clay Terrace. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

Getting creative

The City of Carmel has gotten creative with campaigns to boost business in construction zones in recent years. When several Keystone Parkway intersections were converted to roundabouts, the city and chamber of commerce held monthly roundtable meetings with business owners. Companies joined a Business Advisory Committee to create marketing strategies, and the city assisted in planning events and relaxed signage ordinances to ease the pain of construction.

The city developed Carmel Link, a website dedicated to construction projects, because of the Keystone Parkway project. Now known as Carmel Link 2.0, city officials have pointed to it and social media as ways they communicate with residents about construction zones and affected businesses.

However, as of Oct. 2, the “Cone Zone Businesses” tab on the Carmel Link 2.0 mobile app has not been updated to include businesses affected by Range Line Road construction.

The city hired a full-time employee in its engineering department in 2016 whose responsibilities include visiting with business owners before road work begins.

“We wanted to provide someone dedicated to community outreach for businesses and residents when it comes to construction projects,” City of Carmel spokesperson Dan McFeely said.

Barry Miller, general manager of Brockway Public House on Old Meridian Street, said the only information he received from the engineering department employee’s visit was a timeline. But when he asked McFeely to help him arrange a block party to boost business after more than two months of construction, the city jumped on board, getting him approval and barricades as well as marketing the event, he said.

“I was very satisfied,” Miller said.

Not so happy

Other business owners have not been as pleased with the city’s efforts.

John Perazzo, the owner of J.Razzo’s Italian restaurant in the Hamilton Crossing Centre on Carmel Drive and North Meridian, closed his Carmel location Sept. 15 after seven years in business. He said he could not survive the impact of the three years of construction on U.S. 31 and elsewhere. The U.S. 31 project led to the removal of the exit to Carmel Drive near the restaurant.

Employees who asked to not be identified at Max & Erma’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Le Peep said they also have experienced sharp declines in revenue since the U.S. 31 project. Owners of two of the businesses would like to move them elsewhere. Kite Realty, owner of Hamilton Crossing Centre, declined to comment on the viability of the area and the status of its tenants. It had previously announced plans to overhaul the center with a bowling center and movie theater but dropped those plans earlier this year.

Mo Merhoff, president of OneZone, the combined chamber of commerce for Carmel and Fishers, said road work impacts local business but is just one of many reasons a business might close its doors or move elsewhere. 

“Construction can play a factor, but is it the only reason that a business fails? I don’t know that I buy that,” she said.

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