Businesses adapt to downtown disruption

The intersection of Centre Street and Robert Street has now been re-opened to traffic. (Seth DuChene photo)

Adam Prudhomme
Staff Reporter

Weathering the first phase of ‘Diggin’ Downtown Napanee’ has been all about adapting on the fly for local merchants.

An unseasonably wet summer season extended the project by a couple of weeks which led to some headaches for business owners and shoppers alike as they’ve had to navigate a torn up Dundas Street for a little longer than originally anticipated.

“I don’t think any of us can say sales really jumped up this year, but we fared pretty well through the project,” said Sondra Elliott, chair of the Napanee Business Improvement Area and owner of Pet Panache. Her Dundas Street business being located west of Centre street, she was among the owners some disruptions during the first phase.

She credits the staff at Len Corcoran Excavating Ltd. as well as Lennox and Addington County for working with the downtown businesses to make the best of the situation.

“The (municipality) and the county worked very hard with us on communication and I think that was really key,” said Elliott. “We had a PR person that was downtown every day and they did a fabulous job on directing people that didn’t know how to get to certain stores.”

Prior to the big dig, members of the BIA did their research in an effort to minimize the disruptions caused by the construction of the main road through downtown.

“A lot of what we did we learned from other towns that had already gone through it,” said Elliott. “We had a meeting with Kingston, we had some conversations with the folks in Belleville and said what worked, what didn’t work.”

To help combat the expected drop in sales, the stores and county spent a little more on advertising through Facebook, flyers, newspapers and radio. A large downtown sidewalk sale was also held in July to help raise awareness that the stores were all still open during the construction.

Compounding the problem were the delays faced due to wet weather.

“The whole goal was to be done by July 1, but you get three or four days of rain, it sets (the construction crew) back,” said Elliott. “I do have to say, the communication between the company and what the county did to support us communication-wise was stellar.”

Elliott says though some of her loyal customers have made it a point to visit her during the construction, some went out of town while the road was being resurfaced.

“Conversations I had with people, they were just avoiding Napanee period,” said Elliott. “I had some neighbours, I gave them insight of how we were managing traffic and pedestrians and they said ‘I’m not going to be bothered.’”

That mentality was probably the biggest challenge said Elliott. That’s why the businesses made a big push through advertising to remind the public there was still parking available during the construction.

“This is something we see in small towns, we all rallied together,” said Elliott. “We worked together, it’s all for helping keep everyone successful.”

The first part of the downtown dig just about wrapped up, the merchants can expect a sense of normalcy to return for the time being, until next spring rolls around when they’ll have to face it all over again.

“Next year they’re going to be doing the main block of the centre block,” said Elliott. “We’ll see what happens with that. It’s making us nervous. One of the surprises we got was even though construction was at that (west) end, pretty well all of downtown felt it.”

The BIA will look to take the lessons learned during this summer and apply them to the next two phases as they prepare for more of the same challenges over the next two years.

“We slipped up at the very beginning identifying where the public can park,” said Elliott. “We put up a parking sign, but it wasn’t as clear as it needed to be. The signs were on the corner and said stores were still open, but people didn’t know they could still park on the core strip. We learned that we have to be very specific in our communication.”

Armed with that knowledge and perhaps some better luck with the weather next year, they’ll hope to minimize the effects felt during the next phase. There’s optimism among the owners that the fact that the intersection of Dundas Street and Centre Street was completed this year and won’t be blocked off next year, will make getting in and out of town a lot easier for shoppers.

“When this is all over, downtown Napanee is going to look pretty darn good,” added Elliott. “We’re excited about that and I’ve already gotten comments from people from out of town on how good Napanee is looking.”

A celebration of the first phase being completed is being planned by the BIA and the store owners in the next couple of weeks, similar to the sidewalk sale.

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