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A Matter of Timing

Newport is a community that relies heavily on tourism.  But visitors to the city will soon have to navigate their way around a downtown construction project scheduled to get under way right as the tourist season kicks into high gear. This week Jim Hummel talks to business owners and the person overseeing the project about the timing for construction.


Hummel:  ``We are in Newport this week, where visitors to the city will soon have to navigate their way around a downtown construction project that's beginning right at the height of the season.''

It is the gateway to the City by The Sea, and a must-see location for hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to Newport every year.

But Washington Square is about to get a makeover - just as those tourists are arriving.

Korn: ``We all want this project done, it's for the betterment of the community; it's the timing, and the lack of what I consider consideration for the business community that this being done at the height of the season.''

Since the mid-70s Richard ``Biggie'' Korn has owned Yesterday's, in the heart of Washington Square. Korn sits on an advisory committee that has overseen three phases of construction in and around the square. When it comes to timing,  he says officials have had a tin ear.

Hummel: ``They're going to begin right after July 4th. Busiest time in Newport, right?''

Korn: ``Economically, as you know and everybody knows,  the country is not in any shape to lose business.  The state is not in any shape to lose revenue. We're talking about sales tax money, but we're also talking about word of mouth. If you drive into a community and the whole community is under construction and it's your window that everybody, your employees, have a chance to try to get some money to pay for education to pay for - to make their expenses,  you have  a threat to that economy , which is construction. Because people will bypass construction. They say `We'll go next year'  or `That it's too much of a hassle.'

Lehourites:  ``We knew it was coming, we're excited to have it actually finished, because of what it's going to do for the square - and for the businesses and the tourism, but the timing of it is really what we find so disconcerting:.''

Two doors down, Bill Lehourites manages Jonathan's Ocean Coffee Roasters, which relies on the foot traffic passing through the heart of the city. The adjacent sidewalks are scheduled to be ripped up in a matter of weeks.

Lehourites: ``We basically get three months out of a year to make enough money to get through the winter season when there's no tourism. We rely on a solid base of local regulars. If I don't have the tourist season  and bunch of regulars get accustomed to going up the road  somewhere else - and they stop coming to may place, well that a double whammy.''

This is the final phase of a three-phase project dating to 2006. When it is finished the sidewalks on the north end will look like these across the square. The sidewalks in front of Yesterday's and Ocean Coffee Roasters will also be widened, allowing for tables outside.

Some  preliminary work on a side street has already begun, a taste of what's ahead. But what about the timing?

Riccio: ``Any construction project has impacts, we know that.''

William Riccio - head of the city's Public Services Department - oversees the project, which is being funded with state and federal money. Riccio says because of that - the city had to wait until the money was authorized in March before going out to bid, which pushed the start date back to late spring.

Riccio: ``Once the city received the bids we had to analyze the bids,  send them up to DOT for analysis and basically we also had to get approval from the state in order to proceed with the award of the contract.''

Hummel: ``But this is a project that has been years in the making, the phases were planned out before you got here.

Riccio: ``We did our best  to push but when you're working with so many government agencies, the monies have certain requirements.''

Hummel: ``What has been the effect on your business?''

Korn: ``When that construction was done across the street it was $100,000 in loss of income for the period that was there. We're still recovering from. I mean you don't make that kind of money up because Newport, unfortunately. is not a year-round community anymore for business.''

Hummel: ``Why can't you begin this the day after Labor Day?''

Riccio: ``Why can't we? Because it's already been advertised, I'm not going to say the window, but we've set a completion date.''

Hummel: ``Was there any consideration given to: let's do April  May June, let's take a break for  July and August and gear up again after Labor Day.''

Riccio: ``If that was the goal or the intent, if we look back at  the weather of April and May this year - we would have been lost, because we had so much rain. So you can only plan so much, and there  are lots of uncontrollable,  the weather being one of them.''

Korn said when a previous construction phase ran into problems the city put up Jersey barriers at the base of the square, where it intersects with Thames Street.

Hummel: ``What did that do for business?''

Korn: ``Well it killed it, because when people came into the square, there was nothing visible that you wanted to come to, it just made you want to get out of the square.''

Hummel: ``If you have people  who have never been here before and a whole construction zone and sidewalks blocked off and traffic coming through, doesn't the subliminal message go out - let's stay away from that area?''

Riccio: ``You know, I think everyone would have their own opinion, so to speak.''

Hummel: ``Would you do that  - if you got off a cruise ship and said `Hey, let's explore Newport' and you say jackhammers going and backhoes and concrete being poured - is that a place you would venture into?''

Riccio: ``Me? Probably because I'm going to want to see what's going on.

Hummel: ``You're a DOT guy.''

Riccio: ``I would assume most people would go  because most people want to know what's happening. ''

Korn is asking the city to push off the construction until after Labor Day.

Korn: ``My message is for them to consider alternative way to make this work for the best of the community, the city and the state - to make it with the least impact that would hurt the income of the community, which at this point desperately needed.''


In Newport,  Jim  Hummel, for The Hummel Report.