Expect massive road disruptions to Huntsville’s Main Street beginning next spring.
Huntsville councillors had a tough decision before them at their remote council meeting on Monday night. First up on the agenda was whether to proceed with the Main Street reconstruction project, as scheduled for the spring of 2021, and the impact it could have.
Councillors debated at length the impact road closure, coupled with COVID-19 restrictions, would have on Main Street businesses, fearing that some could close their doors permanently.
Representatives from the Downtown Huntsville BIA were also present and noted that during a survey of their members a small majority of those who responded were in favour of proceeding with the project as scheduled, with a start date of spring 2021.
Steve Hernen, director of operations and protective services for the Town, told council that a similar survey was conducted by municipal staff. The survey was open to all members of the public and, although unconfirmed, 73 per cent of the 59 people who responded said they were a Main St. business owner, and 66 per cent of those who responded indicated that they want the project to begin in 2021 at an accelerated schedule.
An accelerated schedule essentially means greater disruption for a shorter period of time with an anticipated spring 2021 start date and and end date of May 30, 2022.
But Councillor Tim Withey said the majority of the business owners he had surveyed wanted the project pushed further into the future. He said the response was divided. There were those who thought they could withstand further disruptions and those who said they are on the brink of closing their doors for good.
“To rip up Main Street next summer with the businesses that are really suffering now, they’re going to be closed, they’re going to be gone and, as I said, that’s where the lines are drawn,” he said, adding that he would not be supporting a project start of 2021 and asked for a recorded vote.
“The businesses that are struggling right now won’t be around to benefit from the beautiful streetscape in 2022. To me, we’ve got to give them time,” said Withey, pointing at the disruption on King William Street.
“This is one of the most difficult decisions I think I’ve been part of since being on council,” said Deputy Mayor Nancy Alcock.
She said she’s heard from business owners on both sides of the issue. “It could be equally slow next year from a COVID perspective but that would mean that the following year it could be wide open and hopefully a market that comes back 100 per cent,” said Alcock, adding that the disruption could be even worse if there are disruptions on Main Street when things start going back to normal. She said she hoped the municipality could put some sort of mechanism in place to monitor how the businesses are doing.
Hernen reminded council that infrastructure such as water and sewer mains and streetlights have run their course and could fail at any time, causing further disruptions and costing even more money. “Could it last another year without a break? Nobody knows. Maybe you’ll get two years, maybe you get three years, maybe by tomorrow morning we’ll be into a major issue,” he said, adding that based on what’s been seen on underground cameras the infrastructure has reached its useful life.
“It’s paramount that everyone know that we do want every business to thrive on Main Street,” said Councillor Jason FitzGerald. “I think we have to remember that there’s constantly a turnover of businesses on Main Street. Some that have closed down due to COVID, unfortunately maybe they would have closed down if COVID didn’t happen.”
FitzGerald said there is more access to Main Street than there is to King William Street. “I’m assuming at any given time you may have to walk two blocks. We have way more options for people to walk and access pedestrian traffic on Main Street.”
FitzGerald also asked if there would ever be a time during the reconstruction when there wouldn’t be one lane open to vehicular traffic.
Hernen said there would be. “When we’re doing block-by-block construction, vehicle traffic is shut down,” he noted.
There will be times when there’ll be no vehicles. So when they do the Main Street bridge refurb, from Brunel to the Main Street bridge, that section of road will be shut down for approximately two-and-a-half months and then as they move forward, as they catch up with their pipe-laying work, that section of road from Burnel to West will then be shut down for vehicle traffic for approximately two months as they progress through it.
— Director of operations and protective services, Steve Hernen
Hernen said detours will be set up and as reconstruction progresses up the road, beginning at the bridge, the completed sections will reopen, and then paving will take place from one end of Main Street to the other.
Mayor Karin Terziano said she had a discussion with Councillor Bob Stone, who sits as municipal representative on the board of the BIA. “We were having a discussion earlier today and talking about if this resolution goes through tonight, about getting a plan in place to how we can best mitigate the impact on the downtown core and businesses and we’ll start working on that as soon as we make a decision,” she told council. “Not because we care about the downtown core any more than King William but because we learned a lot from King William. We learned how impactful the construction was to those businesses. We probably learned too late to be able to do as much as we would like to do.”
Terziano told council that once their decision is made, “we will start to put whatever measure in place that we can and working towards making it as painless as possible. We know that it’s going to be tough, but we know it’s got to happen.”
In the end, the majority of council voted in favour of starting the Main Street project in the spring of 2021, with Withey voting against it. Councillor Jonathan Wiebe was not at the meeting.
You can find staff’s report here.
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