Downtown Ashland: A work in progress

December 7, 2013

A worker supervises downtown construction as a train makes its way through Ashland. (Photo by Lee Francis)

A worker supervises downtown construction as a train makes its way through Ashland. (Photo by Lee Francis)

The caution tape and road cones have been set aside for now.

Work on the first phase of construction in a major downtown streetscape overhaul in Ashland came to a close earlier this month.

The $600,000 project includes cosmetic improvements, such as replacing deteriorating sidewalks, as well as infrastructure upgrades that help address stormwater drainage problems in the central downtown commercial strip along Railroad Avenue.

Truman Parmele, owner of Ashland Coffee and Tea, knows firsthand about the problems local merchants faced before the improvements.

Three weeks after Parmele bought the 18-year-old staple business in April 2009, a sudden downpour flooded the area. Water was thigh-high on Thompson Street and seeped into Ashland Coffee and Tea, filling it with 2 inches of runoff.

Below, Truman Parmele recounts the infrastructure failures that resulted in flooding throughout his downtown coffee shop and music venue. The worst flood occurred just weeks after he bought the popular Ashland business.

“Susan Greenbaum was playing here and she parked her little Honda right out here where the water came, and in 15 minutes the water was up over her hood,” Parmele recalled. “Her car got totaled that night.”

Overall, Parmele has suffered through four floods caused by a 3-foot elevation drop from the nearby train tracks to his doorstep combined with an undersized storm sewer, which can’t handle intense runoff.

“For the first 15 or 20 minutes, it might keep up but there were numerous times where the water would come up to our door or come through our doors,” Parmele said.

Though the area in front of Ashland Coffee and Tea on Railroad Avenue was a work zone for two months, Parmele said he hadn’t seen any real drop in his bottom line because of the work.

“The construction, surprisingly, did not have an impact on our day-to-day business – if it did it was minor,” he said.

That could be because the coffeeshop/music venue’s main entrance is around the corner on England Street, not directly in the construction zone.

In the long run, Parmele said the project will benefit his business. The improved underground infrastructure should solve all of his flooding woes, and with the enhanced sidewalk, Parmele said he expects to be able to add trackside seating.

“I’ve got to hand it to the town,” he said. “It looks like they delivered what they said they would.”

“From what I’ve seen and the way it looks, it’s a 300 percent improvement,” Parmele added.

Adjacent business Homemades by Suzanne would agree with that assessment. But Kimberly Silverthorne Mills, co-owner of the Ashland eatery, said the construction, which blocked off the business’ front entrance, did affect her foot traffic initially. However, she said the town’s contractor, Talley and Armstrong, was “incredibly helpful” throughout the process.

Mills said they helped make sure patrons could access the business’ front entrance on weekends, a move that helped during events like the recent Randolph-Macon homecoming, which brought extra consumers into downtown Ashland. Homemades by Suzanne was also given signage directing customers to a rear entrance, which helped on weekdays.

“All in all, it’s been a really pleasant experience,” Mills said.

Mills praised the end product, saying it was well worth the minor inconvenience, and said she’s anxious to see the final improvements, which include new streetlighting as well as landscaping.

Charles Hartgrove, Ashland town manager, said the town is currently working to draw attention to the downtown business district in time for the holiday season while also evaluating what went well during the first phase and what they can improve upon when construction resumes in January.

“We’re hoping the businesses weren’t impacted but so much, but we know that they were to some extent because of the lack of parking out front,” Hartgrove added.

One concern heading into the second phase of work is a familiar one. Going into the project, the town was wary about what it may find underground when crews began breaking the surface in the historic, downtown district. Though they didn’t run into any problems such as utility conflicts the first go around, Hartgrove said similar concerns exist going into the next phase.

“We won’t know what that will look like until we start digging on the south side; it could be a nightmare, it could be OK. I think our biggest concern is ‘the unknown,’” he said.

One problem is already pretty well known. Many of the businesses along the corridor only have one entrance from South Railroad Avenue, which come January, will be a work zone.

“We’ll have to be very creative in working with our on-call contractor to make sure that those folks aren’t shut down,” Hartgrove said. “Our biggest goal is to make sure that we don’t impact the businesses, and if we do have to impact them, it’s as little as possible.”

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Cory Bartlett Shaw works for downtown retailer The Caboose Wine & Cheese, located in the second phase project area. He said they’re taking a “wait-and-see” approach.

“As a business, initially it’s going to be tough, because we have one entrance, but as an overall project, I think it’s going to be fantastic,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be a construction zone before we get to the pretty spot, but that’s just how it’s going to have to work.”

Shaw said he’s spoken with the town about patrons being able to access the shop during construction, but said they’re not yet at the point where any solution’s been offered.

Shaw also lives in the downtown district, and said he worries about how he might be affected as a resident.

“I’m a little more nervous about that than I am on the business side,” Shaw said. “I might have to jump over piles of gravel to get into the front door…I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

“My overall position on this is I’m glad it’s finally being done,” he added.

Shaw called the downtown corridor Ashland’s “postcard,” adding that safe sidewalks could help the area thrive with increased foot traffic.

If the project comes to a close on time, Shaw said its affect on The Caboose’s business would be minimized. If the project drags into the spring, it could affect sales.

“In theory it’s going to be during the slow season, but I always expect construction projects to run later. And if it’s a bad winter that they’re predicting, that might affect it, too,” he said. “But fingers crossed, positive attitude, they’ll get it done pretty smoothly.”