The Tacoma Narrows Bridge won’t be the only span for which the Gig Harbor area is famous by this time next year.
A new pedestrian trail, between the downtown waterfront’s north corner at Donkey Creek Park and the scenic flatlands of Austin Estuary Park a quarter-mile down-road, will by next summer also be linked by bridge that’s part of a stream restoration there as well.
But while the neighborhood’s small businesses are looking forward to the final version of the project, and the tourism boost it will bring, their larger focus right now has been on keeping customers.
Lane and parking lot entryway closures, barricaded side streets and walkways, and traffic-clogged street during rush hours, have hampered customer counts, many are saying.
At The Christmas Shop, sales clerk Denise Johnson said that the store has lost roughly half of its customers in the past few months due to the nearby construction.
“A lot of people who regularly shop here are older, and they became confused about how to get to the store when the parking lot was closed off,” she explained. “They also didn’t like parking elsewhere and having to walk across the street. So, they didn’t come in at all.”
Co-worker Barbara Moss added that customers will likely come back once the stream is moved and street work is finished.
But as for now, “I don’t see any improvements so far with the re-routing of the creek,” she said. “Unless you’re a fish.”
A large part of the fall-off in both local and tourist business, said sales clerk Marcia Schiller of The Beach Basket, is that due to construction most people are altogether avoiding the area.
“People don’t realize how badly this is hurting our business,” she said. “And when our sales fall off like this, how are we going to pay our employees? It all trickles down.”
At Gig Harbor Automotive Service, set right between the two parks, owner Brian Smith said that his business has dropped roughly 20 percent since the exact start of construction last year.
That the shop posted record sales for January and February just prior to the onset of construction helped temper the blow to the bottom line, however.
“It was fortunate that we had that to launch us into it,” he said. “Now I think the most painful part is behind us, and we can get back into business full steam ahead.”
Although businesses have indeed been hurt by the obstructions, the City has been keen on promoting the area throughout the process, he added.
“They’ve been really good to work with, and with communicating to us what the timeline will be,” he explained. “They have been really responsive to our needs.”
That’s been the goal all throughout the improvements, said City public works director Jeff Langhelm.
“Donkey Creek is probably the most visible project for us by far,” he said of the area’s numerous current road construction improvement efforts. “However, it will be adding to tourism here, and therefore draw in more business, since it will make something not accessible to the public now accessible in the near future as well as increase our park space.”
That doesn’t take the edge off of long-time local stops like the Marketplace Grill, on the other side of the road closures.
“We’ve really slowed down, about 25 percent,” said chef and manager Richard Lai-Fook. “People are shying away from the area. But we’re hoping it will pick up now. Summer is always good.”
Across the street at Finholm Grocery, downtown’s sole grocery and sundries site, clerk Charlie King said that his business has dropped off as well. That includes a main niche of boaters coming up from the docks across the street, he added.
“Since they first started the work, it’s been a complete block-out,” he said. “It’s like a ghost town over here.”
But some businesses haven’t seen a slowdown due to construction, such as the Devoted Kiss Cafe.
“Not us; we’re a destination spot,” said server Cheryl Busich on a bustling Wednesday mid-morning. “We started out busy two years ago, and it’s always been that way.”
It’s all in the attitude, added server Lara Stroh. With a good business, and a good outlook, customers remain loyal.
“Sure, it’s not optimal, but what are you going to do,” she shrugged with a smile. “We were here before it started, and we’ll be here and looking even better when it’s done.”