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Businesses say they're hit hard by N. Front construction despite Wilmington and WDI's efforts

Road closures on 2nd Street facing North Front. Signage in blue is posted to tell pedestrians that N. Front businesses are open.
Benjamin Schachtman
Road closures on 2nd Street facing North Front. Signage in blue is posted to tell pedestrians that N. Front businesses are open.

Business owners in downtown Wilmington say construction on Front Street is devastating their bottom lines; the city says critical updates to water and sewer infrastructure were necessary, and further delays would have likely increased costs.

The construction work, which will replace aging utility lines and update two blocks of the North Front streetscape between Chestnut and Walnut streets, has been planned for a long time; the project is part of the city's 2014 transportation bond (the two blocks between Market and Chestnut underwent similar work in 2010).

Related: Delayed by concerned businesses and supply-chain issues, Wilmington's N. Front St. project eyes April start

The project was slated to break ground in October of last year, but the city agreed to postpone it to January after businesses voiced concerns about reduced foot traffic during the holiday shopping period. But Covid-related supply chain issues
pushed the project past the low-season sweet spot and into the late-spring, early summer season.

WHQR spoke to over a dozen businesses along and around North Front Street, all of whom reported decreased profits, some lower than during last year — when Covid was hitting hard.

Many said they understood the work is important, but wished the city had done more to mitigate the impact. Several pointed to a perceived lack of communication that plagued the similar North Water Street project; there, business owners were initially told to expect a five-week project — but endured over a year of disruption.

Related: As Water Street sewer project runs a year overdue, local businesses frustrated (Port City Daily)

Taco Baby co-owner and operator Joe Apkarian said the hit comes on the heels of the pandemic and has been hard not just on his business but many others in the area.

"I realized that our city is growing. And that requires, that requires logistics and infrastructure development. 100% ... 100%. I would also say, some forethought and planning should go into when that happens," he said.

Apkarian praised Wilmington Downtown Inc, a non-profit hired by the city and tasked with supporting downtown businesses. In an email, WDI told affected businesses that its 'ambassadors' were making 20 trips a day through the construction area, and directing pedestrians to those businesses during 'hospitality contacts.' WDI also shared information about the state's Business Recovery Plan and its own microloan program.

Other business owners felt WDI was doing its best, but most — like Apkarian — said they felt the city should be doing more.

Hop Yard owner Susan Barnes voiced similar concerns.

“I think it's been shared by me and a number of business owners that, you know, I would have expected that to be a lot more in advance…. So I feel like their support has been more reactionary to what we have been complaining about as opposed to proactive," she said.

Some business owners have gone as far as to ask about financial restitution — but the city says that’s not in the budget for this, or any other, infrastructure project.

The city acknowledged the “temporary but significant inconvenience,” but said delaying the project again would have likely led to increased costs. The city also said it is "actively working with the businesses to help make pedestrians and motorists aware that the businesses are open and accessible" and that it aims to finish the project on schedule.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.