With six months of construction along Interstate 96 ahead of him, Looney Baker owner Greg Dean is taking a philosophical approach: “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.”
The Livonia-based bakery plans on adjusting the quantities of its baked goods to meet a possible drop in demand as commuters find other routes to work. But Dean also said he is going to take generous samples of donuts, muffins, bagels and Looney bread to the construction workers, hoping to “get in good with the crew.”
“If that’s going to be the only guys on the highway, I need to get their business,” Dean said. “Maybe I can get them hooked.”
For Looney Baker, being open 24 hours, seven days a week will ease some of the pain when a section of the freeway closes from March 24 through October. The six-month shutdown along the seven-mile route from Newburgh to Telegraph roads is a $148 million “very aggressive” rebuild on the 40-year-old freeway and 37 bridges, the Michigan Department of Transportation said. Bridges will be closed at various times, with motorists given advance notice.
Businesses along this busy thoroughfare generally say they prefer the shorter closure to an alternative three-year fix that would have shut down one lane. And they’re appreciative of MDOT’s high level of communication through the two years of preparation to launch this massive project.
Still, any road construction hurts. Each company along that stretch has come up with ideas of how to offset the impact, whether it’s developing new delivery routes, leaning more heavily on commercial clients instead of walk-in customers, providing deals or bombarding social media with messages about their availability in the months to come.
“Destination spots may be avoided because people are taking different routes than their typical patterns. This will be the challenge for everybody,” said Dan West, president of the Livonia Chamber of Commerce, which has been posting updates on its website for members.
Businesses have handled similar construction projects in different ways. During a recent project on Telegraph in Southfield, Burger King used the traffic hassles as an opportunity to demolish its old facility and build anew.
But the 2008 construction on Silver Lake Road, a main east-west route in Fenton, remains a bad memory for Mike Conway, who has owned Mr. C’s Barber & Styling for more than 40 years. He believes that service industry businesses are the hardest hit in a construction project.
“It probably cost me $100,000 over the past few years,” Conway said. “Business went down the tubes to a degree. People got used to going somewhere else to avoid the construction, and the new place became part of their comfort zone. They never came back.”
MDOT has held four meetings to engage the public, residents and business owners. It also set up dedicated pages on Facebook and Twitter for the I-96 freeway closure, in addition to a construction project website. MDOT also has a mobility engineer and an ombudsman dedicated to the project, said Jeff Horne, MDOT project engineer and communications representative.
“The full freeway closure would last one construction season and cost $20 million cheaper than maintaining lanes through the work zone, which would’ve lasted three construction seasons,” Horne said.
“Businesses along surface streets in Livonia and Redford should look at the positives of having I-96 closed. Those businesses will have an increase in traffic passing their businesses on a daily basis.”
Another example is UPS on Schoolcraft Road in Livonia, which will modify its employee work schedules and adjust truck routes to meet its customer needs, company spokesman Dan McMackin said. JonBoy Landscaping, on Five Mile in Redford Township, said it is excited to have an increase in traffic pass its store.
The staff of Livonia’s Laurel Manor Banquet and Conference Center has been attending MDOT meetings regularly to stay on top of the project, said Deirdre Stemmelen, general sales manager.
It has added a note to its website and may add similar language to its outdoor signs, informing brides-to-be and conference planners that its “Laurel Manor exit” or the Newburgh exit (accessible for travelers coming from the west; the highway will be closed after that point) and entrances will remain open during the I-96 project.
“MDOT met with them over a year ago about this ... and we felt a big relief to hear our exit would stay open,” Stemmelen said. “We put it on (our website) to reassure people. It’s the same reason we have a live operator on our phones to answer questions. We’re in the customer service industry, so it’s really important for us to be accessible and helpful.”
Some store owners are expecting increased traffic on the main thoroughfares crossing the closed section of I-96, with commuters finding other routes to and from work.
Clifton Denha, co-owner of the Wine Palace on Middle Belt, north of I-96, said he’s trying to keep a positive attitude.
“As a businessman, I’m going to be concerned, but there’s going to be increased traffic on Middle Belt,” he said. “That’s what we’re holding on to.”
Denha said he’ll start delivering wine to customers who don’t want to deal with the traffic and will plan “aggressive sales” to lure customers during the freeway closure.
Beirut Bakery owner Mark Hallis is one of the worriers. He says the scope of the I-96 project is “a little overwhelming.”
“Our biggest concern is just how big the mess is going to be,” Hallis said.
“We’re not going away (and) we’ll probably sell up to local businesses. But that stretch of highway is huge for a lot of people. To be honest, we don’t know how we are going to handle it until it happens.”
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
Staff Writer Michael Martinez contributed.