Bridge work continues taking toll on Washington businesses

Published 12:01 am Sunday, July 10, 2011

Afternoon business was slow at the Speed Ways convenience store on Washington Street.

Just north of the store, the parking lots of two other businesses, Katzenmeyer’s Antiques and Pet Shop, and Mississippi Rubber Specialty, were empty except for the vehicles driven by store employees.

As work continues on the Clark Street Bridge, businesses along Washington Street from its intersection with Lee Street south are suffering. Some are gone.

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“Business is real bad,” said the clerk at Speed Ways, who would identify himself only as “Alex.”

He said his brother bought the former Red Lion Food Store No. 1 in March, because Kansas City Southern Railway officials said the bridge project would be completed by June 29.

“If we had known it wasn’t going to be finished, we wouldn’t have bought it,” Alex said. “People have told us this was a very busy place (before the bridge was closed). We miss the rush.”

Built in 1929, the 82-year-old bridge was closed Jan. 29, 2009, after accelerating erosion on the support banks threatened the span. It was the second time the bridge had been closed. A partial collapse of one of the banks in the 1980s forced city officials to close the bridge for a year for repairs.

In 2010, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a project not to exceed $8.6 million to build a tunnel covered by a roadbed over the railroad tracks, with the city paying $3.7 million of the project’s cost and KCS paying $4 million. The city covered its share by rededicating bond money for a sports complex on Fisher Ferry Road.

The bridge project was to have been completed by June 11, but problems relocating utility lines and with the soil at the site forced KCS officials to seek more time. The board on June 10 granted KCS a three-month extension until Sept. 30 to complete the project.

Interim Public Works Director Garnet Van Norman said the project should be completed in September.

“We had a conference call (with KCS) on Tuesday and everything is on schedule to expect the project to be completed in September,” Van Norman said. “I think we’ll see cars driving on Washington Street by the end of the summer.”

He said workers for Hayward Baker Geotechnical Construction Co. of Maryland, a project subcontractor, are preparing the foundation work for the retaining walls line the sides of the railroad track.

He said another subcontractor is expected to begin working on the retaining wall by July 23.

Van Norman said the project has been difficult because workers have to quit working when trains pass through the construction site.

In the meantime, business owners watch the empty streets and wait.

Wayne Price, who closed his business, The Decorator, for the duration of the project, said one business, a medium known as “Mrs. Harris,” has moved to New Orleans until the project is completed.

A palmist known as “Dora” said the project forced her to move her business from Washington Street to North Frontage Road.

“My business started going down with the recession, and this just added to it,” Price said as he sat in his home behind the business.

Percy Valentine, manager of the River City Rescue Mission Thrift Store just south of Price, said the project has kept away out-of-town shoppers, which he said are the store’s biggest customers, adding, “They’re worried about getting lost.”

“They need to get it open, but they’ve got a lot of dirt to move between now and September,” said Hardy Katzenmeyer, the owner of Katzenmeyer’s Antiques and Pets.

His store sits just south of the lighted detour sign at the intersection of Washington and Lee streets. The sign, he said, “makes a good marker to tell people how to get here. They all know where that sign is.”

He said he also has a lot of out-of-town customers, who find his store on the Internet.

“But they get lost when they leave,” he said. “They ask us for the best way to get to I-20.”

One person who is not upset over the project’s delay is Clark Street resident Diane Lutz, who lives across from the project. Her parents live next door.

“We’re very supportive of them,” Lutz said. “It needs to be done and they need to do it right, however it’s done. Our houses are coated with dust, but that’s to be expected. We’ve decided when they’re finished we’re going to do a good pressure washing of our houses, but we’re not going to bother until then.”