'I survived Project I-64': Businesses prepare to celebrate Highway 40 reopening
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2009 - Suzanne Ford can't wait for Dec. 7. That's the day Highway 40 reopens and her small business instantly becomes more accessible to drivers.
But Ford, co-owner of the Pilates and Yoga Center of St. Louis, isn't waiting until that Monday morning to celebrate. The day before the official opening for motorists, she and roughly 30 of her friends are planning to roll out their mats on some freshly laid pavement.
Yup, it's yoga on Highway 40.
"We thought we'd bring peace to the highway, thank it for opening again," Ford said. "It's our lifeline."
She is one of many business owners in Richmond Heights, Maplewood, Clayton, Dogtown and Brentwood who are thankful this holiday that the final stretch of the interstate to undergo repairs will soon be ready for use.
HARD TIMES FOR BUSINESSES
During the highway shutdown between Kingshighway Boulevard and Interstate 170, businesses along the busy mid-metro corridor have been hurting. Having access cut off at a time when the recession was in full force didn't help, either.
Ford said her business is down 50 percent from this time last year, when U.S. Highway 40/Interstate 64 was still open at Skinker Boulevard. Her center, at 1015 McCausland Ave., is within earshot of the Skinker exit.
While private clients, and Pilates and yoga die-hards still came to the studio during the construction, Ford said many people who normally would drop in for a class decided it was too time-consuming to navigate the detours.
Perhaps no cluster of businesses was put at a greater disadvantage than those straddling Highway 40 at Big Bend Boulevard. Not only was the interstate closed, but this summer and fall so too was the overpass on Big Bend that connects drivers from Manchester Road to Clayton Road. (The overpass re-opened on Friday).
Bud Starr, owner of Starr's wine, beer and foods, which is located between Clayton Road and the overpass, estimates that his business is down at least a third compared with two years ago, largely due to the highway closure.
"We were cut off in three directions -- Kingshighway, Brentwood and from the south," Starr said. "We knew [business] would be bad, but we didn't know it would be this bad. It was pretty much a dead corner -- and we had three empty buildings around us. No one was driving by."
In retrospect, Starr said he wishes he would have budgeted more money for advertising and put more information on his company's website.
Across the street, business at Fowler's ZX convenience store and gas station has also been down, said co-owner Jason Fowler. He said he couldn't estimate exactly how much profits suffered because of the highway closure. "We tried to keep our heads high and we told ourselves more than likely the business will return eventually," he said.
Debbie Colombo, manager and horticulturalist at the Garden Heights Nursery on Big Bend between Highway 40 and Manchester Road, said it's hard to say how much business she has lost because of the closure. A significant portion of customers are typically people driving by on the way to the highway, Colombo said.
"We know we've been missing out on those people," she said. "Plus, the economy has been off."
Colombo said a customer on Friday told her that she hadn't been to the store since the Big Bend overpass closed. That closure, she said, hurt even more than the highway shutdown. (Though she said she felt fortunate that the overpass was still open last spring during the store's busiest season).
Joe Finn, co-owner of Pat's Bar and Grill, which is located on Oakland Avenue across from the St. Louis Zoo, said that even though more cars passed by his street because it was a Highway 40 detour, business has dropped by roughly 20 percent since the highway closure. He said the lack of parking is one reason more passersby didn't come inside the bar.
"I think of us more as a destination" than a place where people decide to go on a whim, he said. "People are already grumpy about traffic. The last thing they want to do is make an hour stop-off."
PLANS TO CELEBRATE
A slew of celebrations is in the works because the owners are confident that business is about to pick up again.
The Missouri Department of Transportation is marking the Highway 40 reopening from noon to 4 p.m. on Dec. 6 by opening the westbound lines to pedestrians and the eastbound lanes to bicyclists between Hanley Road and Kingshighway. (No cars are allowed on either side.) A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 3 p.m.
That Sunday, Big Shark Bicycle Company is sponsoring cycling time trials that run from Kingshighway to Hanley and back. Racing starts at 7:30 a.m. On the other side of the highway, the St. Louis Track Club is hosting a 5K run beginning at 8 a.m.
Finn said plans are in the works for a block party on his street that will run concurrently with the other Sunday festivities. It's being called the "Highway 40 Dogtown survivor party." He said the idea is to have live music and food booths from noon to 5 p.m. Several restaurants in the area are planning to have food stands.
"We're doing our best to make sure that people who were used to seeing the Budweiser sign (that adorns his business) driving down Highway 40 haven't forgotten us," he said.
To commemorate the highway opening, Fowler's ZX printed T-shirts that had their logo on one side and "I survived Project I-64" on the other. Store employees wore the shirts on Friday, and Fowler said more than a dozen customers requested them. So he is ordering another run of the shirts.
The day after the Dec. 6 highway yoga session, planned for 2 p.m., the Pilates and Yoga Center of St. Louis is offering free classes all day at the McCausland location. As a flyer about the event says, "We're so darned excited the highway is re-opening that we're throwing open the doors." From 4-8 p.m., the center is holding a happy hour with wine, tea and food and free hand massages.
As part of the highway celebration, the center is also allowing anyone to attend one free drop-in class until December 31.
Garden Heights Nursery is extending what usually is a one-day holiday open house on the first Saturday in December to a two-day event (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday) because of the highway opening. Colombo said Santa will be on hand, and the store will offer some discounts and giveaways that weekend.
Starr's is planning to hold a series of dinner events and wine tastings in January. An additional reason for celebration, Starr said, is that an extra highway exit has been added nearby. Still, he is tempering his enthusiasm for now. "All this new access is exciting, but people still have to get used to these routes being open," Starr said.
Store manager Tom Leith isn't holding back. "We wanted to go up onto the [Big Bend] bridge and open a bottle of champagne" when the overpass opened, he said. "We'll want to open an even bigger bottle when Highway 40 opens."