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Construction Confusion

NORTHAMPTON — On a typical summer day, Kristy’s Nails on Damon Road is packed with customers getting some TLC for their feet and hands.

But with the pending closure of a small section of Damon Road this weekend, owner Orchid Nguyen said business at the nail salon is way off over the last two weeks.

She noticed a drop in customers shortly after the state Department of Transportation installed digital signs on Interstate 91 and on local roads warning of this weekend’s project to upgrade the railroad crossing at Damon and Industrial Drive. She said the messages give customers the false impression that the road is already closed, or that the entire stretch of the busy street will shut down this weekend.

As a result, Kristy’s Nails will close on Saturday rather than endure another slow day, Nguyen said.

“On a normal day I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. We’re usually full, but today ... nothing.” Nguyen said, gesturing to her small retail space at 137C Damon Road where only two customers were getting their nails done.

A few doors down, Tony Im, who owns Sew Good Tailoring, said he, too, will close his business Saturday anticipating a drop in business.

Across the street, Sunny Patel, who owns Mock’s Convenience Store, said he will likely lose several thousand dollars in sales by the end of the weekend because of the confusion over whether the road is closed. He said the number of customers who come in to buy “booze and snacks” has been declining this week.

“Everybody reads the signs and nobody is coming this way,” Patel said.

Police and transportation officials have been planning for several weeks to handle potential traffic problems that may arise as a result of the project to upgrade a railroad crossing in preparation for high-speed rail later this year. The project will close Damon Road to through traffic from the King Street intersection to Industrial Drive from 7 a.m. Saturday to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Police officers will be on hand along Damon and at other key intersections to direct traffic and alert drivers to the work and alternative routes.

Though a DOT flier distributed to businesses a couple of weeks ago states that drivers will be able to get to businesses and homes along most of the rest of Damon Road from Bridge Street (Route 9) to Industrial Drive, several business owners said the message boards gave people a very different picture.

Several other business owners interviewed Wednesday and Thursday are frustrated that the warning signs don’t mention that the road will remain open to local traffic, including businesses. Signs on I-91, for example, say “Damon Road closed” on one screen, then flip to the next screen, which says “Aug. 9-10.”

Shari Bezio, a manager at Webster’s Fish Hook restaurant at 391 Damon Road not far from I-91’s Exit 19, said some drivers don’t see the second part of the sign and assume the road is closed. And even if they do see the second part, the way it’s worded makes it seem like all of Damon Road will be closed, not just the portion between King Street and Industrial Drive.

Bezio said business has been much slower this week, and the confusing signs about Damon Road’s closure likely have something to do with it. She said drivers on I-91, particularly those who don’t live in the city, will see a message board saying Damon Road is closed and “keep right on driving.”

“It’s definitely affected our business,” Bezio said. “Our regular customers are asking if we are closing, or people are avoiding this road already.”

DOT spokeswoman Amanda Richard said the agency has been coordinating with local officials over the last month for the project. She said in an email that the DOT has heard the concerns from local businesses and on Thursday afternoon, officials changed the signs along seven message boards. Message boards on I-91, however, had not been changed as of Thursday evening. The sign near the railroad crossing on Damon Road now reads “No thru traffic Rd Clsd at RR Xing Aug 9th &10th”

Tom Parnell, manager of Yankee Mattress Factory at 104 Damon Road, and Brenda Toepfer, owner of Arrow Tile next door, both think the changes should have been made days ago rather than two days before work is to begin.

“It’s too late,” Toepfer said.

They’ve been fielding calls for nearly two weeks from customers thinking they will be closed this weekend. As a result, foot traffic has dropped during what is usually a busy time of year, they said.

“As soon as they put those signs up, we went into panic mode,” Toepfer said. “It’s not that the road is really closed, but they are giving the impression that it is. It’s already hurt business because it’s (message boards) been up for two weeks.”

After several business owners contacted his office this week, Mayor David J. Narkewicz reached out to DOT officials to see if the wording on the message boards could be made more clear. Mayoral aide Christopher Hellman said the contractor overseeing the project agreed to change the message boards on roads in the city to reflect that Damon Road will be open to local traffic. Those changes were made midday Thursday, he said.

“The wording on the signs were hard to interpret,” Hellman said. “We wanted to clarify what was going on.”

Parnell said he understands the work needs to be done, but is frustrated that the DOT has not done something about the misleading message since he started calling a week and a half ago. Toepfer said messages should have been changed last week, not two days before the project begins.

“I understand what they’re doing, but tell somebody we’re open,” Parnell said.

The project’s timing is bad for many retail businesses given that it comes a week before tax-free weekend, which is scheduled for Aug. 16-17. Parnell said the store typically takes pre-orders for that weekend a couple of weeks in advance, which makes this weekend vitally important.

“We get a ton of business the weekend before because of pre-sales,” Parnell said. “But if people think we’re closed, we won’t see those pre-sales.”

Richard, of the DOT, said officials are confident that the work will be completed in the time frame announced.

“Fortunately, this type of project happens once every 50 years, and MassDOT was able to avoid any disruption during the upcoming tax holiday weekend,” Richard wrote.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.

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