SOLANA BEACH — When the city broke ground in June on a project to improve Coast Highway 101, the owner of the construction company selected for the job said he only makes promises he can keep.
“And I promise there will be times when you wish I wasn’t here, like when construction begins,” said Glen Bullock of Dick Miller Inc.
“But I’ll try to minimize the frustration and I promise you’re going to love me when I leave,” he said.
It will be at least six to nine months before the project is complete and the latter statement can be confirmed, but Bullock couldn’t have been more accurate with the first part of his pledge.
Frustration has turned to anger and fear as business owners deal with lost revenue, especially during peak holiday shopping time, and the reality that some may not be able to survive until the project is finished.
Lawsuits and restraining orders have been threatened. A safety inspection was requested.
Sue Kelly, who owns Fairbanks Interiors and Something Madd Boutique, said sales are down about $2,000 a month since construction started.
“Most of our business is from people driving by,” said Christine Tolentino, who works with Kelly. “No one is stopping anymore. No one wants to drive through dirt. They can’t see the driveway and there’s nowhere to park.”
Rosemarie Houston said sales are down 25 percent at her store, Bon Bon Furniture and Accessories.
“I’m dying over here,” said Lauren McChrie, owner of Oskadusa Bead Shop, which has been at its Highway 101 location for 21 years.
“I’ve seen it bad, even in 2007 when the economy was down,” she said. “But I’ve never seen it like this. I’m a destination store and people can’t get to me.”
Station Sushi, a 12-year city mainstay that’s normally packed for lunch, served three tables on a recent Monday, owner Chung Choi said.
Bartenders at Pizza Port have had to take on second jobs, the manager there said, and John Lind, who owns a home furnishings store, said he had $58 in sales during a recent 10-day stretch.
Merchants have also complained about rude and disrespectful workers, a sloppy jobsite, safety concerns and traffic problems.
Store owners voiced these and other concerns during a Dec. 10 meeting with Bullock, the city engineer and the city’s project manager.
Bullock, a retired Marine, said as a small-business owner, he sympathizes with the merchants.
“I feel your frustration,” he said. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”
For starters, merchants suggested better signage and lighting.
Bullock said he can’t go back and fix what has already happened but he wants to meet with business owners on a regular basis to hear recommendations on how to make things better going forward.
“I will commit myself to make this work,” Bullock said.
By the end of the meeting most of the anger was refocused on city officials.
Business owners said they’ve shared their concerns with city staff but nothing seems to get done.
“We need your help,” Houston said to City Engineer Mo Sammak. “We don’t get your support. All we hear is that you’re ahead of schedule. To me that’s a slap in the face. Every day I’m struggling.”
Sammak said their concerns haven’t fallen on deaf ears. He said night work was added Dec. 10 to Dec. 12 and an electronic sign that will allow changeable messages to direct customers is being purchased.
City Manager David Ott said several people approached him at a recent event and “recognized the city was working hard on the project and trying to minimize the impacts.”
At 3:40 on a recent Monday afternoon, most businesses along the construction corridor were essentially void of customers, while to the north, along Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas, business was booming.
“That’s what we’re trying to create,” Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said, recalling that when improvements were made in Encinitas, merchants in that city had the same concerns.
“I wanted assurances that wouldn’t happen here,” she said. “I’m sympathetic. We’re doing as much as we can financially do. But we can always do a better job with communications.”
Council members were inadvertently not notified of the Dec. 10 meeting, but Heebner said she would be “more than happy” to attend future meetings with Bullock and business owners “to find solutions.”
The $7 million project will improve the highway from Cliff Street to Dahlia Drive. It will feature gathering places, new crosswalks, additional parking and a shared bike lane. Originally slated to take 15 months, the project is about three months ahead of schedule.