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Tampa Bay's much-needed road projects aren't all win-win for businesses

Businesses owners feel the pinch during construction. Some don't make it after the new roads open.
After the overpass at Gandy Boulevard and Fourth Street opened in 2017, sales fell off at Sweetwater Kayaks, the yellow building in the bottom left of the photo. The owner said the new road made it hard for customers to get to the store. (LUIS SANTANA | Times
Published Jan. 10

ST. PETERSBURG — Standing outside Sweetwater Kayaks, you can hear cars whizzing by on Gandy Boulevard.

They cross above traffic on busy Fourth Street, thanks to an $83 million upgrade that includes several overpasses. A two-mile trip that routinely consumed 10 minutes, now takes three.

Drivers love it.

For Sweetwater owner Russell Farrow, that happiness comes at a steep cost.

"That overpass killed us," he said.

BIG CHANGES FOR GANDY: $1 billion worth.

Customers know where the store is, but they can't get to it easily anymore, he said. Driving east on the new road, many complain that they can't figure out where to turn around. Some end up driving all the way to Tampa.

If they finally arrive, they aren't happy. Not exactly the ideal scenario for a retail business.

The new road has siphoned away enough sales that Farrow is moving the store to the Salt Creek Marine District in the Old Southeast, close to downtown St. Petersburg.

It's a reminder that even much-needed road projects aren't all win-win. Some businesses can't weather the construction phase. Others hang on through all the paving and orange pylons, only to find that the new traffic patterns torpedo their business.

RELATED: Venerable Sweetwater Kayaks is moving to St. Petersburg's Old Southeast neighborhood

A similar scenario played out when the state elevated long stretches of U.S. 19 in northern Pinellas County several years ago. And it will play out again in Tampa, where workers are putting up a 1.6-mile elevated road connecting the Gandy Bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

The state expects about 40 percent of current traffic in Tampa to use the flyover. The idea is to let commuters move quickly through, while anyone who needs to access the surface roads can do so easily.

The project was a no-brainer, given the growing population and traffic jams along that stretch. Still, it comes at a cost, beyond the $230 million price tag. State and local officials have tried to mitigate the toll by keeping businesses updated on the project and performing much of the most disruptive work at night.

They even asked many of the businesses at what time of day they get their most customers or receive important deliveries like food shipments. That way construction workers can try to stay out of their way.

They also launched Shop Gandy!, a marketing effort to get local residents to visit the businesses, even if it takes a little longer to weave through construction, which won't wrap up until the fall of 2020.

SUNCOAST 2: Some roads just aren't worth it.

"We've heard some complaints about noise and construction," said Kelly Flannery, CEO of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "But I think the transparency, keeping people in the loop, has helped."

Michael Beard, owner and president of 81Bay Brewing Co. near Gandy and S. Manhattan Avenue, said it's hard to tell if the construction has affected his business. A few customers have said it was painful getting through all the traffic. Others, he suspects, got so frustrated that they went elsewhere.

He remains optimistic that the project will be a "net positive."

"They had to do something given how bad traffic was getting," he said. "My hope is that once commuters are using the flyover, local traffic will use the surface streets to come to my business again."

Farrow, the kayak shop owner, had similar hopes when the project on the Pinellas side was wrapping up. It didn't happen.

Still, he's refreshingly pragmatic about his circumstances. The state needed to build the overpasses, he said. Traffic was piling up, plus he'd seen too many bad crashes at Gandy and Fourth Street.

"It hurt me," he said. "But ultimately the new road is a good thing for all of us."

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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