Merchants Say Disruption Is "Devastating"

MIAMI (CBS4) – It was lunch hour at Mario The Baker Monday, an Italian restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard. Just three people occupied two tables in the restaurant.

“It’s just terrible, devastating, just devastating,” Manager Christa Tremblay told CBS4’s Gary Nelson. “We are 60 percent off on sales.”

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Mario The Baker is one of many businesses struggling to keep customers coming through the doors amid an on-going construction project along a 20 block stretch of the Boulevard.

The project, being managed by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is installing new sewers, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, landscaping and making other improvements that are part of a $16 million, two year effort. The construction has caused lane closures, sidewalk closures, side street closures, and erected barricades that have separated businesses from their customers.

At the Boulevard Liquors store Manager Nalanie Perez told CBS4 News her business is off at least 50 percent because of the disruption.

“It has been awful, we have really fallen off,” Perez said, adding with a wry laugh that anyone “driven to drink” would have to “wait two hours in traffic in order to get here.”

Just up the block at the Limon Y Sabor, construction crews recently closed off the side street that provided the main access to the Peruvian restaurant.

“Since they closed that entrance it’s just been horrible, horrible,” said waitress Daniela Nolla. Nolla said the restaurant would typically serve as many as 40 tables for Sunday brunch. But on Sunday they had only six tables occupied, she said.

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At the Barks And Tails Pet Spa, owner Daniela Carrasco prepared to groom “Nina,” a small, frisky dog whose owner is a return customer. Carrasco said she is keeping her business going only on the strength of loyal “regulars,” willing to navigate the obstacle course of the Biscayne Boulevard improvement project.

Some wonder why the DOT set aside two years to complete the project that began in August of 2009.

“There’s just no sense of urgency,” said Norman Braman, a civic activist whose luxury car dealerships front the Biscayne Boulevard construction. “The attitude that they have is, ‘I just don’t give a damn,'” Braman said of what he views as the slow pace of the work by the state.

Braman said his business has been significantly affected by the construction but that he, unlike some of his neighbors, has avoided layoffs among his more than 700 employees.

“I feel sorry for all the small businesses that have been affected on Biscayne Boulevard,” Braman said. “It’s tragic to see people lose their jobs.”

The FDOT’s Enrique Tamayo is the manager for the project. He told CBS4 News the work is a “very complex” undertaking that requires the numerous closures that have affected businesses. Tamayo said the FDOT has tried to schedule disruptions, as best as it can, around peak hours for some businesses and has reached out to individual merchants in an effort to minimize the impact. Some obstructions just can’t be avoided, Tamayo said, due to the deteriorating state of underground utilities that must be replaced.

Tamayo said everyone was informed going in that it would be a two year-long effort. He said the FDOT has also tried to help businesses by erecting signs on the the moving lanes of traffic helping direct customers to them.

At Mario The Baker, manager Tremblay said “nobody, not the state, not the county, nobody,” has offered to help businesses by compensating them for some of their losses.

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The contractor on the project does face the prospect of additional compensation, however: A million dollar bonus if the job is finished on schedule, by August of 2011.