Published in the January 12, 2016 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — If you’ve passed through downtown Wakefield over the last couple of months, it would have been hard to miss the fact that changes are happening. The disruption certainly has not gone unnoticed by downtown business owners and some of them are not happy about it. Two of them paid a visit to the Board of Selectmen last night.
Major utility infrastructure upgrades are underway, including to the underground electrical and gas utilities in the downtown. It’s all connected to the 130-unit Brightview Senior Living facility that Shelter Development is planning to construct on Crescent Street. Contractors employed by Shelter, including Phoenix Communications, have been digging up sections of Main Street and blocking off sidewalks on the northeast end of Main Street in the downtown for several months.
Dawn Beebe, owner of ZuZu’s Café, and Nancy Bertrand, owner of Wakefield Uncommon Antiques said that the work has hurt their businesses by taking up parking spaces and blocking driveways and sidewalks. Beebe said that there has been a lack of communication between the town, the contractors and the affected local merchants.
“I’m really starting to get worried and scared about the effect that it’s having on my business,” Beebe told the selectmen. She acknowledged that the work was necessary but took exception to “the complete lack of communication about every aspect of it.”
She said that she recently learned that things are likely to get worse before they get better, as more sections of sidewalk are closed off.
“It has had a debilitating effect on my business over the last three months,” Beebe said. I was never notified of it, so I didn’t know it was going to happen. I couldn’t plan accordingly.”
Moving forward, Beebe said that she would really hope to be in the loop regarding the scope of the work and the impact that it will have on her business.
She said that she has arrived at her business on many mornings this fall and winter only to find her driveway blocked with trucks and cones after receiving no notice. Consequently, she said, deliveries could not be made and Dumpsters could not be picked up.
She said that the residential tenants that she shares the building with have a newborn and a 2-year-old and they too were not given any notice of the work.
Beebe said that there have been cones blocking on-street parking spaces all day, meaning that her customers can’t park there. She said that there have been times when street access and parking in front of ZuZu’s has been closed with no work being done. She said she was told that was “just in case we get to it today.”
She claimed that the Wakefield Municipal Gas & Light Department cut power to her building with no notice and that the surge that occurred when the power was turned back on caused her fire panel to be blown out. Fuses were blown and any electronics that were plugged in were damaged beyond repair, she said.
“This is my business that I’ve put my heart and soul into for the past six years,” Beebe said, apologizing to the Board for becoming emotional.
“I just feel like enough is enough and something needs to change,” she added. She said that she understood that the work was necessary but questioned “the complete lack of communication and consideration. It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Beebe said that after the WMGLD dug up the street to replace the gas lines in September, she received a notice from Phoenix Communications that they would be doing their part of the work for one week. But they were there for the entire month of November, Beebe said, shutting down the street and parking on most days.
She said that workers came back weekly through December, even working Christmas Eve, meaning that her customers that had placed catering orders were unable to access her building to pick them up.
She said that it was clearly more than a week’s work of disruption and she would have appreciated some honesty at the beginning about how long the work would take.
“I could have used that information to plan accordingly,” Beebe said.
“I like being part of this community and as a Main Street business I try to be a good neighbor,” Beebe said. “I would like to ask the town and Brightview to do the same for us moving forward, instead of the way it’s been handled the last few months.”
She requested a contact person that she could go to with concerns moving forward. She said that she would like to be informed of the timeline for construction, road closures, utility work and power outages.
Beebe said that she had already had to lay off one employee and had cut her other employees’ hours in half. She expressed concern for the future of her small business when the sidewalk is closed on her side of Main Street.
“This is not just a business,” she said. “This is my dream.”
She said that if she and other downtown business owners had been told about the lengthy disruption, they could have made some informed financial and business decisions.
“Communication and consideration for the existing businesses should be a top priority,” Beebe said. “I’m kind of sad to have to come here and say this publicly.”
Bertrand said that she supported Beebe and told the board that she had experienced the same things at her business. Bertrand stressed the parking issues. She wondered where people who used to park on Crescent Street to go to jobs on Main Street would park now. She pointed to two parking spaces near the corner of Main and Crescent streets and asked that they be designated as one-hour parking. She also said that it would help if people could park on Main Street between Crescent and Salem streets.
Selectman Patrick Glynn said that he was “very disheartened” to hear the things that Beebe had reported, noting that it goes against all the efforts to make Wakefield a business-friendly town. He suggested that work schedules be posted on the town website.
Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio agreed that things need to change.
“We need to do better and we will do better,” Maio said. He said that he regretted that Beebe had not come to him sooner as he might have been able to intercede and mitigate some of the negative impact.
Selectman Brian Falvey suggested some kind of longer-term committee to facilitate communications among the businesses, the town and Brightview. He said that he was very sympathetic to the plight of the businesses. He noted that while the infrastructure work will benefit the town as well as Brightview, it should not come at the expense of existing businesses.
“Communication needs to be better,” he said.