North Main bridge construction has cut-off local merchants desperate for a lifeline

Traffic that once delivered customers to the well-established businesses along a now closed-off stretch of North Main Street for Panther Island bridge construction, is but a distant whir as it bends out of reach and unnerves panicky merchants fearful of losing their livelihoods.

"Very quiet," said Sasidharan Nair of his 10-year-old Maaco Auto Body Shop at 1025 N. Main St. "Almost 70 percent I have lost. It's very hard to get people here. It's very hard to find this place."

Nair cut his eight-person staff in half three months ago and is struggling to pay his $7,850 monthly lease. Across the street at Rio Grande Auto Sales, Royse Nex said he and his partner's used car lot, situated at 1100 N. Main St., since 2001, has been devastated by the road closure. Potential customers, he said, become frustrated trying to navigate the dusty, re-routed areas and give up.

At Bluff St. Radiator Works, a fixture at 1101 N. Main St., since 1990, 70-year-old owner Roy Watkins said he's contemplating retirement — "forced retirement," he emphasized — because business since the road closure is "dead."

The bridge is being built by the Texas Department of Transportation as part of the Panther Island project being overseen by the Trinity River Vision Authority. The bridge is being built over dry land and is expected to one day shuttle North Main traffic over a re-routed portion of the Trinity River.

North Main between Northwest 11th Street and Northwest 7th Street is expected to remain closed until the completion of the project, estimated to be the fall of 2020, at least still another 30 months away.

Panicky merchants say by then their businesses will be sunk.

'No one can get to us'

"It has died completely and it was real busy. No one can get to it," said Cristina Salazar, co-owner with her husband, Ricardo, of Amigos Investments and Amigos Pottery at 1117 N Main St., founded in 1976 as Amigos Auto Sales. "I had said, OK, this is going to be a pretty good project and we're for it, but I said we need access to our business."

Until completion, northbound and southbound traffic traveling North Main will continue to be rerouted to two lanes on North Commerce Street. Merchants say they understand that businesses are often inconvenienced during road construction projects, but as the impact to their bottom lines weighs heavily, they are beginning to raise their voices.

They say the re-routed paths to their stores are difficult to navigate, and wonder why detour signs that could help direct motorists — and keep their cash registers ringing — remain nonexistent.

The state and local entities jointly working on the project have continually stressed that "access to local businesses on North Main Street will be maintained." Local business owners say such statements leave them shaking their heads.

Main Street closure

North Main Street is closed until 2020 between Northeast Seventh and 11th Streets north of downtown Fort Worth, near LaGrave Field. But motorists will still be able to travel in the area by taking a short detour on Commerce Street. Click on lines for more details.

"I didn't realize it would hurt us this bad. It's hard to visualize till they do it," Nex said, pointing at his lot half-full of inventory and void of customers. "I used to have it full, but I'm just getting rid of my stuff. I'm not even replacing it because I can't sell it. I can't make a living selling cars.

"We want to be on Main Street so people will see us. When you close Main Street, then what?"

'We have two empty buildings'

Concrete barriers situated at the North Grand Avenue intersection heading southbound toward downtown prevent traffic from accessing storefronts along North Main. Some motorists find the patience to seek a workable alternate route. Some have been seen creating their own workable route.

"I had a customer the other day that went down that way over there in a Cadillac SUV and jumped the curb and then comes over here," Watkins said, noting that those who persevere are often then confused about where to park, some choosing a patch of grass.

Amigos Investments sits on the corner of North Grand and North Main, cut of from the once-bustling artery. They also own a pottery business that edges up against those concrete barriers, plus two more adjacent buildings, one that housed B&L Flowers, which has left, but continues to do business over the phone as it searches for a new location, and another they frequently rented out as a party hall.

"So we have two empty buildings," Cristina Salazar said. "I listed those to see if someone was interested to lease it, but of course, no one wants to start a new business on a closed street."

Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Val Lopez said it eyed reopening access at North Grand Avenue and North Main, but opted to keep it closed "due to safety considerations with the drivers' limited line of sight and turning movements."

Months after the the closing of N. Main Street, detour signs are still lacking.

"We're having a hard time with people just getting here," said Bruce Hallinan, the manager of the Maaco shop. "In fact, they promised me a sign over here. I said at least put up a sign before they tore everything down. The guy said no problem. If [customers] have a hard time they’re going to give up, and they give up quickly. And then everybody who walks through that door complains. Of course my deal with everybody is, trust me, it hurts me more than it will hurt anybody else."

Lopez said the Texas Department of Transportation is working with Trinity River Vision Authority and the city to "provide additional way-finding signage and provide maps" for use on the business' websites.

He said both projects are expected to be completed "within a month." Nine months after the road first closed.

"We used to be busy, trust me," Hallinan said. "At first it took a while to hurt, but now it hurts, man."

Crime adds to misery

A significant increase in crime, merchants say, isn't helping their situation in this industrial area creeping closer and closer to redevelopment. With their businesses cut off from North Main and patrol officers, criminals are finding easy pickings.

Nair said he had $25,000 worth of tools stolen from his shop two months ago. Cristina Salazar said thieves have stolen expensive tools out of their warehouse on several occasions. Nex said he had a truck stolen off his lot, along with various auto parts.

"We have had a lot more burglaries here because it is so easy," Cristina Salazar said.

"The police presence wasn't very good in the first place, but at least when you had some traffic, it made a little difference, but now they know nobody's here," Nex said. "I've had them break my windows, steal tail lights, whatever parts they want off the cars."

Fort Worth police spokesman Daniel Segura said they have not noticed a spike in crime and that squad cars do continue to patrol the area. Segura said he will advise patrol and neighborhood police officers assigned to that area to provide extra patrol as call loads permit.

City Councilman Carlos Flores said he has spoken with some business owners in the affected areas. He said merchants negatively impacted by the construction should contact his office, and that those speaking out now will hear from him.

"I will call them personally and see what I can do in my capacity to help them out," Flores said.

Nex has one idea.

"I feel like they should give us a certain amount of money until the project is finished," he said. "It doesn't have to be a lot, $2,000 or $3,000, something to sustain you. I think that would be fair."

Jeff Caplan is an enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705 or on Twitter @Jeff_Caplan