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Revenue Detour

Some businesses are struggling to survive as the Palo Verde overpass project reaches its halfway point

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Customers are few and far between these days at J&P Auto Sales, where a Chrysler and a Corolla are dull with dust from the bulldozers that are at work rebuilding the Palo Verde overpass.

The construction project--a complete rebuild of the bridge that carries traffic over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Aviation Parkway--has left J&P owner Jose Barraza unsure of how much longer he can keep his used-car lot open.

Barraza used to see a steady flow of traffic pass by every day, but since the construction project began in June, Palo Verde has essentially come to a dead end in front of his dealership. Barraza's business has basically met the same dead end, and Barraza wants help from the county to relocate.

"Don't get me wrong about the road," says Barraza. "I just wish they were helping me more than they are now. I'm excited about the improvements, but I won't make it to (the re-opening of the overpass)."

Barraza is just one of several business owners who have suffered as the county continues the $22.6 million project, scheduled to be completed next summer. Others contacted by the Weekly expressed their disappointment with the project, but did not want to speak out, fearing that negative comments could hurt business even more. Near Barraza's car lot is a deserted shop where R&J Safety used to be; manager Joel Schild recently had to relocate, because he says R&J could not endure a year of construction.

Rene Gastelum, of Pima County Public Works, assists business owners with any problems they encounter during construction. He reassured them that the closure of the road would not have a great effect on business, even though he had his own doubts. "Before the project started, a lot of people were looking at it as creating a war zone where there would be no growth and no one driving through," says Gastelum. "I told them that it wasn't going to happen, but you know, I didn't know."

This is the first time Pima County has provided support services to businesses affected by construction; Gastelum believes the problems are minimal, considering the size and complexity of the project.

"If a business owner has a question that deals with Pima County, I'll do the research and go ahead and call the different departments and come back to them with an answer rather than putting them in the bureaucratic maze," says Gastelum.

Gastelum points out that despite the construction, some new businesses--including Los Betos, Subway and ChopStix--have opened nearby in recent months.

Business owners themselves are holding Tuesday morning meetings to communicate with Pima County. Although Pima County is not responsible for managing the meetings, Gastelum says he attends almost every one in order to address any issues. He tells people the project, estimated to last about a year, is on schedule.

But not every business owner attends the Tuesday meetings. Kenneth Donaldson is the owner of Insty-Prints at 3880 S. Palo Verde Road. For more than 10 years, the copy shop operated a couple blocks closer to the construction site. Relocating, even if it was only down the street, allowed Insty-Prints to retain some of the traffic they used to receive. Still, Donaldson says he is losing $200 to $300 a day in over-the-counter sales. Meetings do not provide any consolation.

"As far as I know, they haven't done anything for anybody," says Donaldson. "I keep to myself. I've got a business to take care of, and I don't want to get involved with everyone screaming and yelling."

The old Insty-Prints used to be next door to Woodworkers Source, and was not the only business to leave the strip mall. Dick D'abate, who runs the hardwood floor company in the 3400 block of Palo Verde, decided to stay and endure the construction. After all, he says, his company has been established in the area for 27 years

"I didn't think it would affect us that much, but being at our location, I think we are about as bad as any. We are at the end of the world here."

D'abate does not attend Tuesday morning meetings anymore. He went to a couple early on because of concerns about a stoplight. Customers who did venture into the area were trapped, because the red light never changed; it took Pima County a while to remedy the problem. Also, some signs that the county put up to notify customers that the area was open for business had come down; six weeks passed before the signs were repaired.

"They're very agreeable," says D'abate. "Nobody says, 'You big dummy, why are you even suggesting that?' They listen and do the best they can."

Hardwood flooring is a specialty business, so it does not rely as much on the drive-by traffic as Insty-Prints. And if his busiest months, November and December, do not bring in the typical amount of business, D'abate knows he will still survive.

Barraza, who remains worried about whether his used-car lot will survive in its current location, says he quit attending the meetings because he was disappointed in Pima County's staff.

"I used to go to the meetings, and in front of everyone there, they (Pima County) said, 'Oh yeah, we'll help you,' but once I called their office, they said that they can't help me, so why would I go to the meetings? They said they were going to help me out with the hardships," says Barraza. "They agreed on a certain amount of money, and then there was no budget."

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