Traffic circle project hurts some downtown business owners, encourages hope in others

Posted 3/17/21

PITTSBORO — The trucks arrived in January: dozers, backhoes, compactors. Soon, they’d stripped the pavement and gutted the roundabout. Almost overnight, it seemed, Neal’s Gas and Convenience …

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Traffic circle project hurts some downtown business owners, encourages hope in others

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PITTSBORO — The trucks arrived in January: dozers, backhoes, compactors. Soon, they’d stripped the pavement and gutted the roundabout. Almost overnight, it seemed, Neal’s Gas and Convenience — directly adjacent to Pittsboro’s historic traffic circle — was all but engulfed by the downtown road construction.

Where the property once had two entrances, one dusty path remains — and sometimes construction vehicles block even that entryway.

“The way the signs are,” said owner Manish Patel, “people think it’s closed off.”

Things were already tough for Patel before the N.C. Dept. of Transportation and Town of Pittsboro’s joint project began in earnest. The pandemic hit his business hard. But two months of construction hit even harder. His sales declined in the last year — but not enough to shut him down. Now he’s worried he might be approaching that threshold.

“It dipped a little (during the pandemic), but it wasn’t as drastic,” Patel said. “But now I’ve dropped off by half. … Expenses don’t go away, but my margins are thin.”

The $2.48 million traffic circle overhaul is part of a larger project to improve about two miles of U.S. Hwy. 15-501 in Pittsboro, encourage more pedestrian traffic and shore up driver safety. Yet for some nearby business owners like Patel, the Pittsboro traffic circle construction project comes as a badly timed sequel to a pandemic that hurt their bottom lines and threatened their economic survival.

“The pandemic was already bad,” Patel said, “and now we’ve got this.”

‘You can’t get this way’

On the corner of West Street and Hillsboro Street lies New Karma For Old Threads, a shop that owner Andrea Batsche opened about five years ago to give old clothing a new lease on life.

Located on 17 Hillsboro Street, her shop faces the traffic circle, just a stone’s throw from the courthouse. Before construction began, customers could pass through the circle from any side and slide into a small parking lot right in front of her shop. But now that the circle’s closed to east-west thru traffic, it’s a bit more challenging — and she said it’s hurting her business.

“It’s terrible that they think this is so important to have this torn up and done,” Batsche said. “Many of us are trying to survive COVID, the slowdown from COVID. And then this happens, and it just pushes these small businesses, these micro-businesses, into a place where we can’t continue.”

Before the pandemic, Batsche said she used to receive quite a few out-of-town shoppers passing through Pittsboro from Raleigh, Greensboro or Southern Pines.

“I have a lot of those shoppers, and they haven’t been in at all,” she said. “So is that COVID? Probably. Is it traffic? Most definitely.”

It’s been a tough few years to be a small business in downtown Pittsboro, Batsche said. In late 2019, weekend protests and counter-protests over the removal of the Confederate monument ruined the Christmas season for many nearby businesses. COVID-19 came soon after, further diminishing sales — and just as light appeared at the end of the tunnel, the traffic circle construction project began.

“Well, honestly, if it’s going to happen at all, January (or) February is the time to do it because it’s already the slowest sales time of the year after Christmas,” she said. “So that is this tiniest little good part, but I don’t know how quickly they’ll be done because now it’s March and now it’s important to have that be finished.”

But it’s not just bad timing, as some business owners told the News + Record; the winding detour paths and ancillary construction work all over town have also sown frustration and confusion for many.

“You can’t get this way, and you try to go up here, and they’re working on the road up here, and if you go down Thompson Street maybe you go down that way and then they’ve got the road all blocked off. They’re working on it there,” Batsche said, citing a few examples. “So the detour work isn’t thought out. It’s like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

“I had to go around my elbow to my phone to get in here,” added customer Jean Templeton, shortly after arriving at Batsche’s shop. She’s lived in Pittsboro for about 30 years. “It really took me, ‘Well, can I go here? No. Backup.’ ... I was just determined to see (Batsche), so I go, ‘Nu-uh, can’t go that way. Nu-uh, can’t go that way,’ because they’re doing stuff all over.”

The detour signs aren’t great either, Batsche added, agreeing with Patel. To drivers coming into town, many signs say roads ahead are closed to traffic — even on several exits going into Pittsboro from U.S. Hwy. 64.

For most locals, that’s not really an issue, said Angelina Koulizakis, who owns Angelina’s Kitchen on 23 Rectory Street.

“We know all the side roads and can navigate our way around; it’s a small town,” she said. “But I do find myself kind of pulling my hair when I’m trying to think of the cleanest, clearest way to describe to someone coming from the east down to our shop because we’re west of the circle.”

It’s frustrating, Koulizakis said, but it’s not overwhelming. In fact, the traffic circle construction hasn’t really hurt her business.

“We have some hardcore customers,” she said with a laugh. “No one else makes some of the stuff we make. So I would say our business has been mildly affected, and it’s been more affected by the ancillary side work that somebody brain-farted that we should do at the same time.”

Community support, Batsche said, so far has helped her shop weather the months-long storm. She’s especially grateful for Main Street Pittsboro and the Sheriff’s Office, which put up a big sign that said, “Downtown is open.”

“That’s how we’ve gotten by — people making the effort to make sure that these small businesses don’t fall away,” she said. “But some days I sit here and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to give up, but should I?’ You know, that’s not what I want to do. But when do you decide enough is enough? And when is it too much?”

‘Tremendous at the end’

Pittsboro’s downtown traffic circle reconstruction has been years in the making. NCDOT fields project proposals from scores of municipalities statewide, but has limited annual capacity. According to Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy, towns have little flexibility to dictate terms — if their requests are granted at all.

“There’s a lot of people in the state that have needed projects that aren’t getting done right now,” he said.

While the timing is lamentable, Kennedy said temporary growing pains are worth an improved downtown experience.

“There’s no doubt that downtown will be improved with this project,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the project’s going to be tremendous at the end. I don’t think anybody can disagree that the timing — it just isn’t ideal. … And so we are greatly empathetic to that and we’re trying to do what we can to work through that.”

Not all downtown business owners are upset by the project’s temporary inconvenience; some agree with Kennedy’s long-term perspective.  Most aren't located immediately adjacent to the traffic circle.

“I think that the town needed some updating to compete with the new business from Mosaic and all the trucks coming through town will have to be rerouted, so the noise level of the traffic will be less annoying,” said Claudia Perry, owner of The Modern Life Restaurant on Sanford Road. “I feel like we will be more of an extension of the downtown community and people will be drawn to SoCo for outdoor dining, music and just an all-round great place for our community to come together and have fun.”

Lexie Wolf, owner of Yoga Garden PBO on East Street, said she too thinks that traffic circle modifications will help her business eventually.

“As Pittsboro grows, we want people to be enthusiastic about going downtown and not worried about traffic and parking hassles,” she told the News + Record.

It’s hard for business owners in the interim, but Wolf is confident an improved aesthetic will invigorate community engagement downtown as the pandemic wanes and activity resumes.

“It is in hard times when we show our true character,” she said. “Pittsboro business owners have supported each other and our community has shown great concern and support for us. Downtown Pittsboro will emerge from this stronger than ever and will be bustling and thriving very soon.”

The project is scheduled to conclude in October, according to NCDOT’s website, but Kennedy predicts it may end earlier if the current pace continues. If businesses can hang on just a few months longer, he said, it will be worthwhile.

“While we are, again, very empathetic to these businesses, and we’re doing what we can to try and mend the gap,” he said, “I do think it will be worth the struggle. I just hope we can all get through it.”

Some owners, like Patel, aren’t sure whether they can hang on a few months longer. In the meantime, however, they hope to see more people stop by. Despite the construction, they said, downtown is open and ready for business.

“It’s a challenge to get here,” Batsche said, “but it’s worth it once you are.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com. Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.  This article previously stated that the traffic circle was closed to thru-traffic, but as of March 17, it's only closed to east-west thru traffic. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

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