Business owners say Depot Park work plan detrimental prompting city to rearrange construction schedule

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Depot Park hosts several major and smaller events during the year. The city purchased the park in 2009 and created a master plan for the development of the park to meet future needs of the community in regard to the downtown open space. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish will adjust its schedule for construction at Depot Park after businesses near the park said work occurring during the peak summer season would have a detrimental impact to their bottom line.

Construction on the park and streets surrounding it are now expected to take place in May and June and then resume in September and October, and the final task of the project would be completed in May and June of 2020. The original schedule showed work taking place from June through October with sections of Railway Street, Spokane Avenue and Central Avenue adjacent to the park being closed to traffic and sidewalks closed to pedestrians at various times.

A number of business representatives and employees spoke before City Council last week saying while they support the upgrades to streets and the park, the construction schedule would hurt business during a time of year they depend on.

Paul Abu-Taleb, representing Tupelo Grille and Abruzzo restaurants located nearby on Central Avenue, said the restaurants could see up to a 25 percent loss in business because of closures during the summer season.

“This could be the difference between making payroll or not or staying in business or not,” he said. “We see 50 percent of our sales in July through September.”

Lauren Oscilowski, of Spotted Bear Spirits, said her peak season is also July through September and she was surprised that a project this size would be happening during the peak season.

“The work on Depot Park will continue to help the north end economy grow, but my concern is the timeline of this project,” she said.

Becky Rygg, owner of Harlow, said it’s difficult already to get customers to turn from Central Avenue onto Railway Street, and construction in summer would make that even harder.

“I truly believe if this happens now I might go under,” she said.

Mikey Winn said he was speaking to “put a face to the workers” that would be impacted.

“We bank on the summer season,” he said. “We live on the tips and commission from the summer and it’s scary to look down this path,” he said.

Following comments, City Council approved the revised schedule of work for the project, which is estimated to cost almost $250,000 more than originally planned because of the change. The entire project is estimated to cost $1.55 million with $1.3 million being set aside in the tax increment finance budget to pay for it.

Assistant City Manager and Finance Director Dana Smith said the city would likely be able to cover the cost overrun through TIF funds that haven’t been allocated to other projects.

As part of the change to move up the start time for the work, Council will also hold a special meeting on Thursday, April 25 at 11 a.m. to award the bid to a contractor for the portion of the work set to take place this year.

Mayor John Muhlfeld said shutting down the north side of downtown will be difficult noting that the summer season is when most of the resort tax in the city is collected.

“I’m sympathetic to the businesses,” he said. “Especially those of you who are fledging businesses.”

Councilor Katie Williams said it would be unfair to businesses to cause so much impact during the peak summer season.

“This is an act of good faith,” she said. “We need to be good partners with our business community.”

The construction project planned at Depot Park is to implement the second phase of the park’s and downtown master plans, and would be completed with four different tasks.

The first task, set for mid-May to June 30, is work on Railway Street that involves constructing curb and gutters, and creating angled parking abutting the park, along with creating a multi-use trail on the park side of the street that would continue on the north side of the O’Shaughnessy Center and to the viaduct.

The second task involves the intersection of Railway and Spokane and is set for work from mid-September through October. This task includes curb and gutter work and creating pedestrian bulb outs at the corners.

Task three includes improvements on Spokane Avenue just north of the Railway intersection to Depot Street, as well as work on the east side of the park. It includes improvements to the parking on the west side of Spokane and pedestrian bulb outs at the intersection. Utility work for electrical and irrigation will take place in the park, along with turf reinforcement. This task would occur mid-September through October.

Task four involves work on Central Avenue north of Railway and on the northwest part of the park. This task would take place in May and June of 2020, and involves parking improvements along the street as well as a section of a multi-use trail that would follow the edge of the park and around the O’Shaughnessy.

Public Works Director Craig Workman said the project is designed to be constructed counterclockwise around the park, so bidding the fourth task of the project separately would not impact the other tasks.

The selected work schedule will still have impacts to the Farmers Market and events such as Oktoberfest.

Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland estimated that being forced to relocate Oktoberfest from Depot Park would cost the chamber at least $8,000. He asked for any assistance the city could provide with the costs related to moving the 10th anniversary of the event.

“The folks who have set up business on Railway have confidence, and they deserve an equal shot at making it,” Garland said. “There’s no doubt that construction will have an impact on businesses on Railway, but if it has to impact someone it should be the chamber that takes the hit and not the individual businesses.”

Representatives from the Farmers Market said they would prefer the option for the construction schedule that the city ultimately selected.

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