No More Cones And Construction: Brandon Open For Business
After more than four years of near constant construction on three separate projects, officials in Brandon say the snarled traffic that caused headaches for local residents, businesses and anyone trying to drive through is over, and the town is ready to show off its makeover.
Bernie Carr stood in front of the gift shop he and his wife have owned for more than 40 years and beamed at the passing traffic.
There were no flaggers, no orange cones, no torn-up concrete, no loud noise or dust – just a flurry of snow.
“This is wonderful, just wonderful,” said Carr, who also directs the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This is all new,” he said, walking toward the town’s municipal offices. “Because we have sidewalks where we never had sidewalks before, we have curbs where we never had curbs before. We can’t wait to see the village dressed up in its Christmas finery with the beautiful new street lights, and the new snow. Yeah, it's very exciting."
He and a lot of others in town are happy, because for the last four-plus years, this central business district has been repeatedly torn up, first with bridge work, then with construction on some adjacent land near the town offices. And finally, with the project that really tore people’s hair out: A 30-month upgrade above and below Route 7.
With a price tag of more than $29 million, Carr says it was the most costly municipally-managed construction project in the state.
Brandon Town Manager Dave Atherton says crews worked in stages to reroute and replace the entire length of Route 7 where it twists and turns through town. A process, he said, that confounded traffic.
"Traffic wasn't flowing," he said. "It was pretty slow moving for a year."
Atherton says there are still a few small things that need to be finished, like some concrete steps off the main roadway and a few other odds and ends. But at this point, Atherton says the Route 7 upgrade is 96% complete, and he and Carr believe all the headaches of the past several years will be worth it.
“This project gave us 1.3 miles of brand new infrastructure with water lines, sewer lines, storm[water filters] and a new roadway," Atherton said, meaning they won't have to repair Route 7 like they did every year because of frost heaves.
Those stormwater upgrades are important according to town officials, considering the devastating flooding that occurred in town during Tropical Storm Irene.
Carr said there’s a new traffic pattern through town, which he thinks will be safer, and parking in the business district has been redesigned to create more flexibility.
“We have a nice coved parking area now in front of the Brandon Inn, and nearby businesses can block off that area for special events and street fairs," Carr said. "And the 10,000 to 12,000 cars that pass by on Route 7 every day won’t be impacted.”
Electrical lines were buried so the historic part of town isn’t cluttered with utility poles and wiring.
Carr ran down the list of other upgrades: “All new concrete sidewalks with brick decorative edging to them, trees, new benches and grass cover, beautiful historic streetlights.”
He said 80 percent of the work along Route 7 was paid for with federal dollars. The state kicked in 15 percent and Brandon residents covered the rest, about $1.4 million, according to Carr.
“So it’s a lotta bang for our 5% buck,” he said.
Not everyone is happy, however. Driving into Brandon from the south, it’s hard to miss the question painted in bright white letters on the side of Stan Sherwood’s house: "Better For Who?"
Sherwood’s house sits low on a sloping lot alongside Route 7, and he says the noise and machinery he and his neighbors have endured the last three years was nearly unbearable.
“It’s felt like a war zone,” he said.
But what really bothers him is all the trees he lost in his front yard. They were cut so the town could install a massive sand filter for stormwater runoff.
"We had been here for so long, and to see this kind of a change to our property, it was sad," Sherwood said. “We didn’t want to see [the trees] go. We were happy the way the town was.”
But local resident Steven Zorn likes the changes and thinks they’ll help the town grow.
“Yeah, I think we’re all pretty optimistic about Brandon now," he said.
But like Stan Sherwood and many others, Zorn admits the last several years have been difficult.
Zorn sold antiques and gifts for ten years at a shop called Found Objects. Because of the store’s location, he and his business partner decided to close down three years ago and wait out construction. He says they plan to reopen next spring.
"We depend on tourists, we depend on people coming through town to shop in our shops," Zorn said. "A lot of businesses are really suffering as a result of construction.”
Bernie Carr says some businesses saw a 40% drop in revenue. But he and other town officials say the good news is no businesses left or closed permanently, and some entrepreneurs saw the infrastructure upgrades as a reason to move to Brandon.
People like Riker Wikoff. He and Pete Brooks opened the Red Clover Brewery in downtown Brandon a year ago, and both say they considered the town’s revitalization a bonus.
“It definitely attracted us as we were looking for a town to open this brewery in," Wikoff said. “Seems like progress is being made, and forward momentum, and the whole narrative of building a better Brandon – it was a nice encouragement for us."
Brooks agreed: "We’re pumped about it.”
A new distillery recently opened up the street and a clothing retailer opened a second shop downtown.
Steven Zorn hopes others follow suit. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to seeing more visitors in town again.
"I think people now coming through it after seeing it under construction for so long are going to see it gleaming now," he said. "And I think that’s a wonderful thing.”