First planned to close in the second half of 2020, Rt. 9 through Hillsboro earlier this year was closed months ahead of schedule. Now, town leaders say the highway could be closed until August—an announcement that has concerned, frustrated and angered some area business owners who say their livelihoods are at stake.
The town’s $14.33 million Rt. 9 traffic calming project—which is installing roundabouts on each end of town, burying utility lines and constructing sidewalks—began in early March and was originally planned to keep the highway open through town open until late summer or early fall. Town leaders previously asserted that partial and full road closures would happen only then, and occur periodically through May 2021.
But just a month into the project, on March 31, the town’s water main broke, which forced a closure of the highway through town for repairs from May 4 until mid- to late-June. Just two weeks ago, town leaders indicated the full closure might remain in place until mid-August to help speed work while many of the region’s commuters remain off the roads. Now, area business owners are speaking out, criticizing project leaders for seemingly changing plans on a whim, being unresponsive to concerns that an extended closure could kill their businesses, and neglecting to announce such decisions in a more transparent way.
Steve Bozzo, theproprietor of BozzoFamily Vineyards, said that, while the town’s initial plans to close the highway through town for up to 60 nonconsecutive days was “painful” but “not overwhelming,” the current closure and potential extension is devastating his business.
He said he originally expected a 30-percent loss in revenue from road closures, but now is seeing a 50-percent reduction caused by a combination of the now-five-week full closure and the coronavirus crisis.
Town leaders previously said keeping the highway closed until mid-August would allow a reopening for the ever-important fall season, but Bozzo said the spring and summer periods are just as important.
Vice Mayor Amy Marasco, who serves as the deputy project manager, said that because business owners emphasized early in the project that the fall season was so vital, the town built a schedule to accommodate an open, or partially open, road in the fall.
“That was their number one requirement,” she said.
But Bozzo said the town misconstrued what one winery owner said during an input meeting a few months back. “Fall is a great time, but doesn’t make up for the rest of the year,” he said.
Bozzo also emphasized that if the road is closed until August—an action he vehemently opposes—there can be no more full closures for the remainder of the project’s timeline.
Marasco said that if VDOT accepts the town’s request to keep Rt. 9 through town closed until mid-August, the town will direct the contractor to not fully close the highway again for the rest of 2020. There would still be some full closures in 2021, though, just not “really long ones,” Marasco said.
“We’re trying to help the businesses,” she said.
Hillsborough VineyardsMaster Brewer Tolga Baki said the reason business owners’ concerns right now are so important is because once winter rolls around, they will all basically shut down until spring and have to rely on revenue they generate before that point. He said if he doesn’t build up his coffers by then, “we’re in a hell of a lot of trouble come wintertime.”
Notaviva Craft Fermentations co-founder Shannon Mackey said because the town continues to change the closure schedule, business owners are unable to plan for the future. Mackey said she and her husband and Notaviva co-owner, Stephen, have had to get day jobs to supplement their income.
Breaux Vineyards General Manager Jennifer Breaux said the changing plans are especially a problem for her because her winery is operating entirely via reservations right now. To depict the current state of her winery’s finances, Breaux said it’s like being accustomed to making $100 each weekend and now making only a dollar. “That’s kind of where we are right now,” she said.
Breaux said although a full closure through mid-August could turn out to be better for area businesses than if there were to be more full closures later on, there are no guarantees “and it’s frustrating.”
“We’re in this for about 11 more months and just need to get through it with as little impact as possible,” she said.
Hillsborough Vineyards Winemaker Karem Baki said town leaders are “obviously not taking consideration of the business voices.” “We fear that they are genuinely not listening to us,” he said.
But Mayor Roger Vance, the road project manager, said “nothing could be farther from the truth,” noting that the town has spent about $20,000 to help promote area businesses. The town spent $10,000, along with another $20,000 split between Visit Loudoun and Loudoun County Economic Development, on a business promotion campaign before both the pandemic began and the water main broke. The town also spent another $10,000 to install 35 wayfinding signs along the detour route and to promote businesses on the project website, ReThink9.com.
Marasco pointed out it was also the town that requested VDOT keep the highway through town partially open on weekends. Although plans have changed and the highway through town is now closed entirely all days and times of the week, Marasco said business owners should support the town in its negotiations with VDOT to extend the closure to August—since that would mean the highway would be open later in the year once Gov. Ralph Northam allows the Northern Virginia region to fully reopen from coronavirus restrictions.
“They should see the tradeoff is huge for them,” Marasco said, noting that the town will need to reach an agreement with VDOT before its permit to keep the highway closed expires on June 26.
But not all area businesses are voicing the same concerns, because they aren’t experiencing the same types of problems.
Ronda Powell, the co-owner of Old 690 Brewing Co. and Harpers Ferry Brewing, said she hasn’t seen any issues from the full Rt. 9 closure through Hillsboro. She said she can’t quantify how much business she has lost because the closure is happening simultaneously with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t see where the road project has had any effect on [business]—COVID-19 has had an effect on it,” she said.
Powell said she would prefer to see the highway through town remain closed until mid-August so that the project wraps up sooner and so her patrons don’t get confused by multiple closures and openings.
But some area business owners are also concerned about the way town leaders are disseminating project information after reading about the possible closure extension in the newspaper. Moreover, Bozzo said business owners aren’t getting “straight information” and that there is “no transparency” from the town. He claimed the town used the water main break as an excuse to close the highway sooner than later.
“They just did it and now this is a pattern,” he said. “I don’t trust them one iota.”
Mackey said “it’s a constant sit down and shut up and just take it” from the town.
But Marasco said the town notified many business owners during a June 2 meeting of the Rt. 9 Compass group, which is comprised of business owners and residents, about plans to request VDOT to extend the closure. In general, she said she and Vance have “been extraordinarily transparent” and that allegations of a lack in transparency are “unfair criticism.”
“We feel like we are doing an excellent job in an environment that changes daily,” she said.