It’s been a rough few months for businesses in the area of Clinton and Weber avenues, just east of Highway 99.
The armful of restaurants, markets and gas stations – from independent mom-and-pops to chain supermarket Vallarta – found themselves cut off from a significant number of their customers earlier this year when the California Department of Transportation closed the Clinton Avenue off-ramp from the freeway. The problems deepened when Caltrans closed and demolished the Clinton Avenue overpass above the freeway – forcing customers west of the freeway to detour south to McKinley Avenue to get across and then north to the businesses.
Customers trying to get to the businesses from the north or south using Weber Avenue, or coming west on Clinton from Palm Avenue, confront an intimidating gauntlet of orange cones and flashing signs and a large pile of dirt where the old overpass used to be. Collectively, it’s been enough to dissuade many casual customers – and even some regulars – from making the navigational effort for dining or shopping.
The construction is part of Caltrans’ project to realign a two-mile stretch of Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues to make room for the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s future bullet-train tracks through Fresno. The freeway lanes are being nudged westward by about 100 feet. The overpasses at Ashlan and Clinton are also being rebuilt to provide enough clearance for the high-speed trains and the overhead electrical lines that will power them.
At Primo’s Family Market, manager Mikey – who didn’t want to give his last name – estimated that business at the small grocery and liquor store is off by at least 30 percent. The store is on Hughes Avenue about a block north of the Clinton/Weber intersection – a cluster of established businesses in a central Fresno neighborhood. “If anyone around here tells you (the loss of business) is less than 25 percent, they’re lying,” Mikey said. “We’re all hurting around here.”
A couple doors down, Rudy Jr.’s Chicken Man, a restaurant known for decades for its homespun fried chicken meals, is barely clinging to commercial life. Janet Wash, who took over the operation after the death of its namesake Rudy Wagner Jr. in late 2015, said she’s had to cut out lunchtime hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because of a lack of customers. “It’s just so hard to get here, and people only have an hour for lunch,” Wash said. “Lunch hours are so slow now – really, it’s slow all the time, but once in a while we’ll have a good day.”
Earlier this year, Wash figured she’d lost about half her business to the construction. Now, as word gets out to regular customers about the restaurant’s troubles, some are making more of an effort to dine there, and so the drop-off is more like 30 percent now, she said.
Wash said she’s hopeful that the work will be done on schedule in October. “They have done a lot already; you can tell just by looking at it,” she said. “I have faith in them. They know how hard it is on us for them to close” the overpass and off-ramps.
If Chicken Man is still in business when Clinton reopens, she hopes customers will return and business will rebound. “I think they will, as long as we’re consistent in our food.”
In the meantime, however, it’s been a struggle to pay rent and taxes, buy supplies and cover other monthly expenses.
If anyone around here tells you (the loss of business) is less than 25 percent, they’re lying. We’re all hurting around here.
“Mikey,” manager of Primo’s Family Market on Hughes Avenue near Clinton Avenue
Around the corner, members of the Santeufemia family say their DiCicco’s Restaurant at Clinton and Weber is also feeling the pain. “We were told it would be six months, that it would be done by the end of September,” said a family spokeswoman who did not want to reveal her name. “It doesn’t look to me like that’s going to happen.”
In the meantime, business is off by about half. That’s half as many customers coming in to eat, half the money coming in to pay the overhead, half as many tips for the waiters “who need those tips to feed their babies,” the manager said. Additionally, the construction project increases the driving time and distance for the drivers who deliver food to customers on the west side of the highway, “and it’s even a headache for us to get to work here.”
The biggest business in the construction zone, the Vallarta Supermarket, is particularly vulnerable because its only street access is from Weber Avenue, which is clogged with cones. Like others in the area, it’s at least partially dependent on customers from west of Highway 99. Construction on the store began in March 2015, and it opened in November, just months before Caltrans began its extensive work at Clinton Avenue.
“We were notified by our landlord that this was pending, but our understanding is almost a year elapsed before the actual construction started from its original scheduled date,” said Rick Castillo, Vallarta’s corporate director of marketing.
Castillo said the company has not determined how much its business has suffered as a percentage, “but it’s been significant.” He added that Vallarta had no way to forecast the possible effects of the project.
Officials with Caltrans and the rail authority acknowledge that construction projects can create difficulties for nearby businesses. “We are trying not to have disruption, but unfortunately in the nature of this type of work there are going to be closures,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the high-speed rail agency.
That’s why, in October 2014 – more than two years before the work began – the agencies held a meeting at DiCicco’s attended by about 20 business owners in the area to let them know about project details.
Cory Burkarth, a Caltrans spokesman, said engineers presented the business owners with two options – a drawn-out, 16-month project in which one lane of the Clinton overpass would remain open with traffic controls, or a complete closure for a shorter six-month period. “The business owners present voted 18-2 in favor of the six-month plan,” Burkarth said. “The sentiment was overwhelming that they were supportive of the plan that was the absolute quickest.”
But since the work began, the reality has been more painful than businesses may have anticipated. Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, said her office joined Caltrans and the rail authority for the 2014 meeting, “but because it was early, people probably didn’t realize the extent of the closures and how it would affect them.
Throughout this process, what we’ve tried to do is be very responsive to business owners.
Cory Burkarth, Caltrans spokesman
“Once it really started to get our attention was when Vallarta – this brand-new grocery store that just opened – called and said, ‘We’re having problems. People need to know we’re here,’ ” Eager said. “We looked at access problems with Caltrans and studied how to get people to Vallarta.” The EDC also began a campaign to remind residents in the neighborhood that Vallarta was in business and helped Caltrans find places to put signs showing detour routes to get to the store.
Burkarth said Caltrans – which is handling the work under a contract with the rail authority – has tried to be as accommodating as possible in adapting lane closures and detours to be the least disruptive. “Throughout this process, what we’ve tried to do is be very responsive to business owners,” he said. “We understand the impacts that any construction project can have on a business in the area. … If a business has a concern, they can call us and we can look at it and see if we can give them an answer.”
Throughout the entire six-month construction period, Caltrans is providing a free shuttle service to ferry pedestrians, bicyclists and handicapped people across Highway 99, running daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. So far, Burkarth said, the shuttles are averaging about 70 riders per day. “We consider the shuttle service to be a big success and have been satisfied with ridership data and the feedback we’ve received from people using the service,” he said.
DiCicco’s is among a number of businesses that are pushing Caltrans for some sort of financial compensation to make up for lost business caused by the construction and the associated traffic mess. “But you have to jump through so many hoops; it’s just one more thing that takes up time for small businesses,” the manager said. “It’s not fair for them to come through and do all this and not even try to help you through the situation.”
So far, Vallarta has not made any effort to seek payment from Caltrans for the disruption to its business from the construction, “but it is being reviewed,” Castillo added.
Burkarth said there are a couple of different avenues for affected businesses to apply for compensation if they can document how their sales or income have been harmed by the construction – one through Caltrans for claims up to $10,000, and one through the state’s Department of General Services for larger claims.
“If a business has been there five years or longer, we ask generally to see financial documents for the same time period from the previous five years,” Burkarth said. “If there’s an actual visible trend and it falls within the scope of what’s payable, that helps make the case.”
Payment isn’t automatic, however. “We have two responsibilities – one to the businesses who are filing the claim, and the other to the taxpayers of California,” Burkarth said. “We can’t pay a claim just because someone says their business is down. We have a responsibility to make sure we’re vetting those claims.”
Eager added that another possibility may be working with the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Fresno Community Development Financial Institution. “We’re looking for a way to see if businesses can get low-interest bridge loans from CDFI to keep them in business while we fix this,” Eager said. “If we can keep them alive, whatever we can do to help them, we’re willing to facilitate all of that.”