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Alt. U.S. 19 project is driving customers away, businesses say

Equipment and materials lie on an easement along Alt. US 19 on Wednesday near downtown Palm Harbor, where a $2.9 million resurfacing and improvement project is underway on a 3-mile stretch of the highway, from Whisper Lake Road to Harry Street.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Equipment and materials lie on an easement along Alt. US 19 on Wednesday near downtown Palm Harbor, where a $2.9 million resurfacing and improvement project is underway on a 3-mile stretch of the highway, from Whisper Lake Road to Harry Street.

PALM HARBOR — Ask veteran car salesman Joe Lentini, owner of Ozona Motor Cars Inc., why he plans to close his business on Dec. 31, and he will not hesitate.

"The DOT project in front of my business is shutting me down,'' he said.

The Florida Department of Transportation project he refers to is the $2.9 million resurfacing project along Alt. U.S. 19 in a 3-mile stretch between Whisper Lake Road and Harry Street. The work, typically done after 8 p.m. each night, officially began back in the spring.

However in September, things turned ugly outside of Ozona Motor Cars, said Lentini.

"I never had losing months until 90 days ago. That's when the project moved in front of my business,'' he said.

Lentini, who is a former sales manager for the Lokey Automotive Group in Clearwater, decided to open a used car dealership in 2008.

"I decided it was time to sell used cars because the economy had gone bad. Nobody was buying new ones,'' he said.

For the first two years, he had an annual salary of $50,000, selling between 12 and 15 cars every month, he said.

However, in October, Lentini sold only seven cars. "And in November, only four,'' he said.

He contends that the DOT's subcontractor, Better Roads Inc. of Naples, began using the parking area in front of his business, blocking potential customers from seeing his cars on display.

"They began using this area to keep all their equipment for the entire project,'' he said. "I've seen more than 40 workers on my property at times, and I've also come in many mornings and had to clean up garbage,'' he said.

DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said she is aware of Lentini's situation. According to her records, at the beginning of December she received an email Lentini had sent to Gov. Rick Scott's office. On Dec. 6, her office sent a project manager out to check on his concerns.

"Construction can be messy,'' Carson said. "But our materials were not on his property. They were on DOT, state property. He brought it to our attention that material was blocking his business, and we asked our contractors to move the materials.''

Lentini acknowledges that the DOT has moved the equipment. "But it was too little, and it took too long,'' he said.

Lentini is not alone in his frustrations over the road construction.

Down the street, Bill Gallant, owner of Bill's Super Gas and Automotive Repair Center, is current president of the Palm Harbor Main Street Association. He believes the business community is not being heard.

Although he understands that Alt. U.S. 19 did need repaving, he believes that "from a business owner's point of view, some of what they are doing does not make a lot of sense.''

"There has been a complete insensitivity in this corridor to the businesses,'' he said.

For several years, Gallant has asked the DOT to put up a traffic light at either the Alt. U.S. 19/Florida Avenue intersection or Alt. U.S. 19 at Nebraska.

"It's a dangerous area, and we need it because of people wanting to cross from the Pinellas Trail and come to do business in downtown,'' he said. "But we are always told there's not enough money, and here they are doing all this. Who really wanted this project?''

Gallant also has questions on why the DOT put new curbs and driveway cuts along the right-of-way next to his business. They've made it hard for customers driving large vehicles to enter his gas station, he said.

"I have diesel trucks who used to come in here because of ease of access. Now they're making other choices because of the curbs,'' said Gallant.

According to Carson, the DOT followed proper procedure. At the beginning of the project, DOT sent him what is called "a driveway letter, notifying him of the changes,'' she said.

"We rebuilt it to our standards for safety concerns, because whenever we have a driveway that is a huge open space, that is not to DOT standards. It could cause a safety issue when people are exiting or entering the business very quickly.''

And at the Magnolia Grille, located at 600 Alt. U.S. 19, manager Kalen Gebler says she believes the nightly congestion caused by construction has led to a drop in business.

"Usually by December, we see an increase of customers because of snowbirds. We haven't seen that yet this year, and what's really a concern is that after dark when the workers are out, we've heard customers say that it is too difficult to stop here,'' she said. "We are not sure some people even realize we are here."

Gebler wonders why the DOT did not provide temporary signs along the roadway, similar to those found on the DOT project going on in Clearwater on U.S. 19. For that one, the DOT put small blue signs up and down the road, marking the entrances to businesses that are not easily seen during construction.

Carson explained that the small signs are used only on bigger projects, not on resurfacing projects like Alt. U.S. 19.

Carson stressed that the project will be completed "in just a few more weeks.''

"But if there's equipment blocking the view of the business, business owners should let us know, and nothing (no construction equipment) should be parked on private property,'' she said.

Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or pcastillo@tampabay.com.

Alt. U.S. 19 project is driving customers away, businesses say 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 1:50pm]
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