FLORENCE — Mary Mitchell sat inside her Seasons restaurant and talked about the seemingly unending construction project outside the front door of the 1420 Huntsville Road business.
"It started in September," Mitchell said. "It was supposed to be 80 days. It's frustrating. I know it's affecting us. I'm grateful to still be able to open the doors and praying it gets finished and I'm able to sustain business."
Across the street, Katrina Hudson, owner of another restaurant, Ray's at the Bank, at 1411 Huntsville Road, said officials told her at the onset of the project they anticipated the project concluding by Feb. 8.
On a day in May, at 11 a.m., Hudson looked out at her restaurant. There were customers at two tables. Hudson said it often is empty at that time of day.
"Our lunch is at least 70 percent down, if not 80," Hudson said. "I'm shocked there are are people at two tables here now."
She said her restaurant, which opened in October 2016, has been saved so far by the dinner crowd.
"Dinner has not really been affected and I think that's mainly because I hired a valet company because people could not get in here," she said. "It did get my older diners in here at night."
The project, a roundabout, is an effort to eliminate the awkward and confusing east Florence intersection. It was slated for 80 working days. While that allows flexibility for events such as rain, nobody anticipated it still would be far from completion more than four months past the promised date.
Officials say rainfall has caused many delays to the project. The Shoals has received more than 40 inches of rainfall since the project started in September, according to National Weather Service data. The area received at least a trace of rainfall in 85 of the 212 days during the seven-month span from September through March.
On top of that, when workers reached two old underground lines, they realized the work could not be done without replacing the lines.
"They got down there when grading it and the material wasn't that good," City Engineer Bill Batson said. "If you're going to build a road, you've got to build it on a solid foundation."
Batson said a water line made of cast iron and a sanitary-sewer line made of clay had to be replaced as part of the process.
He said it would have been impossible to dig around them and bring up the materials without damaging the pipes. So, the sewer pipe was replaced with a type of PVC and a ductile iron is being used for the water lines.
Mike Doyle, general manager of the Florence Gas, Water and Wastewater Department, said workers had to replace the dirt around the lines with dirt that compacts better.
"If you don't have dirt that compacts well for a good road base, you take out the old dirt and put in new dirt that will hold up," Doyle said.
He said traffic today is much more frequent than when the old lines were installed, so more compaction is necessary for this project. That involves undercutting when pipes are involved, but in this case there was a question whether the pipes would be able to hold up during the work.
Doyle said since Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program funds are paying for the work, contractors did the actual project, while his department provided engineering services and new meters.
Batson said the roundabout project started in September, but work mainly took place underground. The road work started in October. He said he feels for the business owners and understands their frustration.
Batson said a great deal of work has gone on throughout the last few weeks.
"They've been able to work every day," Batson said. "We've had good weather. The big problem before was we couldn't get dry weather."
He is a regular figure at the construction site, going there a couple of times a day.
"There haven't been any other issues that have come up," Batson said.
Business owners and employees along and near that Huntsville Road-Royal Avenue construction area hope the project has seen the last of its impediments. The work is affecting them in a variety of ways.
"Of course they want the project done," Batson said. "They've been very understanding but I know they'd just like to see the project completed."
Impact: Forced to cut employee hours
Barricades and the construction area that spreads from the Royal Avenue-Huntsville Road intersection keep out motorists. Customers park as close as they can, hoping for an opening at one of the few spaces along the row of buildings at Huntsville Road. Signs on the barricades state that businesses are open.
Rob Tyree, acting manager at Ranger Battery Co., 426 S. Royal Ave., said it is an awkward drive to his business, which is at the Huntsville-Royal intersection. A narrow and gravelly path from Royal Avenue leads straight onto his driveway, much of which has been reduced to gravel due to the construction.
"We have motor homes and semis come in," Tyree said. "To get them in and out is not easy. It's hurt us tremendously."
He said customers sometimes comment, "They almost cut you out, didn't they?"
Tyree said he does not blame the contractors, who have done well under the circumstances, but his business has slowed to the point where he has cut back his employees' hours.
"I have a lot of people who will call us and say, 'I can't get to y'all. I'm going to Batteries Plus or Walmart,'" he said. "Our deliveries are keeping us alive. If we have a service call right now we don't charge for delivery unless it's too far out, past St. Florian or something."
The path that leads across the front of his driveway makes it difficult to service a vehicle outside.
"You're working on a car and can hear a car just fly by you," Tyree said.
Motorists have asked workers if they could move a vehicle they're working on so they can cut through the business, Tyree said.
His response is the same: "No, because there's no battery in it."
Donna Hill, owner of Staggs Grocery, 1424 Huntsville Road, pointed to a recent award that named Staggs the top breakfast in Alabama. She said she is thankful for that publicity.
"When we won, I said it couldn't have come at a better time," Hill said.
She said sales have been cut in half due to the construction. She looked out at the crowd of fewer than a dozen customers shortly after 11 a.m.
"Usually at this time it's packed," Hill said.
On that particular morning, a train had stopped across the Huntsville Road tracks for a while, and Hill fielded a number of calls from customers asking how they could get to the restaurant.
Still, she said business seems to have picked up some, compared to the earlier days of construction.
"We're doing better but not as well as we were before they tore the road up," Hill said. "The guys doing the work, it's not their fault, and they come in here a lot."
She said Batson also is a frequent visitor.
"He's been coming around and talking to us," Hill said. "He's been a big help. He keeps us updated and comes in, asking how we're doing and if there is anything he can do for us."
Impact beyond the construction zone
Some businesses along Royal Avenue that are not in the construction zone still are being impacted.
"Yeah, it's affecting us," Wallace Smith, owner of K&W Furniture and Appliances, 120 S. Royal Ave., said as he stood on the sidewalk in front of his business and watched the construction. "Here recently it's dropped on off some. I think it's the aggravation of going through the street.
"I'm just wondering how they came up with their time schedule when they said 80 days."
Smith, whose business opened Sept. 19, 1969, said he feels for those in the construction area. He said he tries to keep a positive outlook but notices traffic has diminished since construction started.
Not everyone is feeling an impact. Allen Morgan, owner of CIR Painting, 234 S. Royal Ave., said a painting business isn't the type that has drive-by customers.
"It hasn't bothered us," Morgan said. "We're a service business. We just meet here in the mornings and meet back in the evenings."
He added, though, that he is concerned about the restaurants. "Some of them hadn't been open long before this started."
Beverly Cook, owner of Beverly's Nailsmiths, 129 S. Royal Ave., works by appointments so she is not hurt by the decrease in traffic flow.
"The only way it has affected us is having to direct some people here, with the routes they have to take," Cook said. "The detour stuff is not real clear. Everyone else, I feel sorry for them. This always has been a very busy road."
At Bruce Automotive Center, 246 S. Royal Ave., Reggie Bruce tried to look on the bright side of the reduced traffic.
"I can pull out in the street any time now," Bruce said.
Holmes said the detours are frustrating.
"It's aggravating because I have to go all the way up and then back down," he said.
High Ridge Spirits, at Huntsville and Royal Avenue, remains some 90-120 days from opening, said Timm Glass, owner of the distillery. That means construction should be completed before they open.
"We've got it about 75-80 percent done," Glass said.
He said he realizes the road project has been snake-bitten by issues.
"I know the contractors are doing all that they can," Glass said. "It's not their fault. It's just been rainy weather and unexpected delays."
At Thompson Astro Tops, 1422 Huntsville Road, owner Drew Thompson said he is in a more fortunate position than many businesses in and near the construction area.
"I do everything through internet and catalog sales so it doesn't affect me," Thompson said, as his cat, Pepper Box, slept nearby. "But these other businesses, it is affecting them. Parking down here is terrible."
He said he doubted from the start that the project would be completed within 80 working days but while the surprises have added to the frustration among business owners, he understands the work had to be done.
"They redid a lot of water and sewer lines, and if they hadn't done that, they would have been right back digging it up again," Thompson said.
Derek Stracener, owner of Sam's Service and Garage, 1404 Huntsville Road, said although his business is at the Huntsville-Royal Avenue intersection directly in the midst of construction, he does not rely on drive-by business.
"I'm blessed with plenty to do," Stracener said. "It'll look good when they get done. I'm confident the city of Florence is doing all they can do to get it done as soon as possible."
More than half-way done
District 3 City Councilman David Bradley, whose district includes the Sweetwater area where the roundabout work is being conducted, said the construction is about 60 percent completed.
"The contractor hopes to complete the work in June," Bradley said.
The state of Alabama is funding 80 percent of the project's cost, but it is a city project.
Bradley said the process of preparing for construction involved a lot of work, especially since the state is helping fund it. He said the project began when it did because that was when everything was in place.
"It just happened to be the time to start it," he said.
Still, he was worried about the starting time from the beginning, and he thought 80 working days was optimistic.
"I was never very confident that it would happen in that time, simply because the weather is always a factor in Alabama during the winter," Bradley said. "However, I never would have guessed in a million years that this project would take so long."
There had been attempts by the city to add to the amount of parking spaces. One was at a building owned by Thompson Astro Tops, but that once was a gas station, which meant there was underground gas storage that would have had to be removed due to environmental regulations.
Bradley said the city also was going to purchase land just east of the intersection to build a parking lot but there are issues with who has clear title to it.
Bradley said there is frustration in every voice he hears.
"I understand there are issues that came up but it's done nothing for the frustrations of the owners," he said. "At the same time, I couldn't be more proud of those who are rallying behind the businesses. Every time I talk to people they voice their frustrations and at the exact same time tell me that they keep coming to the businesses and show their support.
"I'm appreciative of the continued attention being brought to it. It's keeping the city on their toes to get this project done and also helping these businesses get recognized."