From Main Street storefronts, business owners wait for update on redesign project
Concord's Main Street is seen and reflected off a storefront covered in paper on January 27, 2014. After the city spent several months trying to earn the support of Main Street's merchants, many feel conflicted following disappointing bids from contractors for the project they worry will interfere with business.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Gerry Mark, co-owner of Caring Gifts, doesn’t want to lose parking spots near his downtown Concord shop.
He definitely doesn’t think Main Street should be reduced from four lanes to two.
But when the only proposal for Main Street construction came in at nearly double the city’s estimated price – again – Mark didn’t celebrate.
“I don’t think any of us are gloating over this,” he said. “We’re not happy about this.”
Many downtown business owners were shocked and disappointed by a poor response to the city’s second request for bids on the Main Street redesign.
The redesign, which is partially funded by a $4.71 million federal grant, would reduce the road from four lanes to two with a crossable center median, widen sidewalks and improve accessibility. The city’s base estimate is $7.1 million, a number calculated by consultant engineers at McFarland Johnson, and two requests for bids have yielded only two proposals – both far above the target price.
The first offer, from Pembroke-based F.L. Merrill Construction, was $12.23 million. The city rejected that number and asked for bids again in November – only to receive a more expensive proposal Friday from E.D. Swett Inc. of Concord. That company’s estimate for nighttime construction was $13.83 million.
Even though he has fought some aspects of the project, Mark said he was disappointed to see the second request for bids turn up the same results as the first.
“But you sort of knew it was going to happen,” said Donna Mark, his wife and business partner.
“It was too big,” Gerry Mark said.
But on some scale, he said, Concord needs this project.
“I think the city looks tired,” Gerry Mark said. “I think the city needs to be spruced up.”
A block down from Caring Gifts, Mark Cohen sat behind the counter at Pitchfork Records. The music shop’s owner wants the heated sidewalks pitched
in the project’s design, and he wants the Main Street project to make his storefront and others downtown more accessible. He wants recent redevelopment near his shop to continue.
“I’m delighted that building has been rehabbed,” Cohen said, pointing to the Endicott Hotel across the street.
He also wants an explanation for the gap between the city’s base estimate for construction and the two much higher bids from contractors.
“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Cohen said.
Worth the money?
Developer Steve Duprey agreed the city’s first step is questioning its own numbers.
“I think it’s very prudent for the city administration and the city council to sit down with the consultant to find out why their estimate of what the project would cost is different from the bids,” Duprey said. “Clearly, there’s a disconnect.”
But the project should go forward even if the city has to shell out more money to make it happen, Duprey said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this project is worth it,” he said.
Duprey has opened two new buildings on South Main Street in the past several years. The Smile Building opened in 2011, and the Love Building opened last summer on the former site of the New Hampshire Bindery.
He has also expressed an interest in redeveloping the Department of Employment Security building on South Main Street, which the state will vacate later this year.
Some cost-saving changes could make Duprey and other developers less likely to invest their own money downtown. For example, Duprey said the city should stick to its plan to bury above-ground utility lines on South Main Street.
“I wouldn’t put a Smile or a bindery building where the (Employment Security building) is with those utilities out front,” Duprey said.
Chamber of Commerce President Tim Sink said the project should go forward even if the city needs to scale it back.
“I’m a believer in this project,” Sink said. “I think we need to work together to make this a success. I think there will probably have to be some tough choices to make, and that might require some sacrifices.”
Those sacrifices, however, shouldn’t get in the way of a more attractive downtown, he said.
“From an aesthetic standpoint, the end product has to have a wow factor to it,” Sink said.
Pam Peterson, owner of Gondwana & Divine Clothing Co., said she believes the Main Street project could make downtown Concord “a place where people will want to be.”
She wants the redesign to go forward – with one condition.
If the city is going to widen the sidewalk outside her storefront, Peterson said, she wants to see it heated to melt the snow that piles up in the winter.
A snowmelt system on Main Street hinges on Concord Steam, which has not yet committed to the project. That snowmelt system is also not included in the $13.83 million estimate from E.D. Swett, and heating sidewalks just in the core area of downtown would tack more than $900,000 onto the bill.
“Frankly, my feeling is if . . . there’s not going to be a snowmelt system, then we shouldn’t do the project,” Peterson said.
The next word
As city officials consider their options going forward, Tom King, owner of Joe King’s shoe store on North Main Street, hopes the city rethinks the Main Street project entirely.
“I’m kind of hoping the city will seize the opportunity to pass on the whole thing,” King said.
King said Concord needs to focus on attracting more renters to upper-story spaces and making sure shoppers have spots to park – and addressing the city’s infrastructure first is like building “the cart without the horse,” he said.
“I don’t think a lot of the planning was very realistic,” King said. “I think some of it was well-intentioned, but . . . this thing was on the fast track and, boy, it was too important to be fast-tracking something like this.”
Construction on Main Street was originally scheduled to begin this fall; then the start date was pushed to this spring. Without a contractor or a clear path forward for Main Street, downtown business owners are waiting for the next word from the city that has been planning this project for years.
Their stores would line the two-lane downtown corridor. The pedestrians on Concord’s newer, wider sidewalks would be their customers.
And that, Gerry Mark said, can’t be forgotten.
“If you don’t have good, vital retail stores, you don’t have a Main Street,” he said. “I don’t care how wide your sidewalks are.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)