Trying to do business this summer on North River Street in Batavia during a streetscape improvement project has been rough.
The street has been closed, from Wilson Street north to State Street, since May. The city tore it up to turn it in to a pedestrian-friendly space called a woonerf, a kind of curbless, combination street and plaza.
It should look lovely when all done, but it has been a pain to get to shops and restaurants.
However, whether the city should offer financial aid to affected businesses was questioned Tuesday night by some members of the city council's community development committee. Businesses considered for the aid are Tusk Thai; O'Brien's Pub; El Taco Grande; Katrina Salon and Spa; and the Rhino Room.
The idea was suggested to the committee last month, after an owner of a business asked for help, saying business was down 20 percent since the project began.
During the work, temporary walkways have been unexpectedly closed or moved repeatedly, and in general, the uneven surface wasn't conducive for the disabled to access. One alderman noted a female friend wearing high-heeled shoes refused to enter the area. For the most part outdoor dining was impossible, and on the times it was possible, dust and noise made it unpalatable, according to a memo by Batavia City Administrator Bill McGrath.
So the committee considered giving some businesses a credit on their utility accounts, equal to what they spent on water, sewer and electricity from May through October. McGrath expects this would cost the city about $25,000,
"It (the new streetscape) is really all about keeping people coming downtown, and if we don't keep the businesses there, it doesn't make sense," McGrath told the committee.
One of the businesses on the street has fallen slightly behind on its utility payments, he said, which could be an indicator the business is in trouble. McGrath and Alderman Jim Volk also noted, however, that business could drop because of other factors unrelated to the construction. Still, businesses couldn't plan completely for the construction interruptions, according to the memo, because work schedules changed, sometimes at the last minute, and there were unanticipated problems such as discovering unknown old sewers and connections. But the businesses still had to light and cool their facilities, refrigerate supplies and do prep work on food, in case patrons showed up.
A representative from the Batavia Chamber of Commerce said the chamber has questions about what criteria the city used to pick who to help, if it should be made available to all businesses in the area, and if a utility credit is the best way to go about it.
Alderman Susan Stark said that even though the money would come from a fund of property taxes paid by downtown landowners, her constituents called her Tuesday to complain about the idea.
"I got a lot of calls from people saying 'Why is the city handing out more money?' The residents are getting tired of seeing that, and they don't care if it is TIF money or not." She also said those businesses will benefit from the streetscape work.
TIF is tax-increment financing; property taxes from downtown sites is set aside to be used to improve the downtown infrastructure and develop business.
Stark questioned why Tusk Thai and the Rhino Room were being considered. Tusk Thai is on State right across from a city parking deck, which has remained open during construction. Rhino Room, on the northwest corner of Wilson and River, opened just before construction started and so should have known of the potential for disruption, Stark said.
McGrath was instructed to talk to chamber representatives about the plan, and will report back to the committee Oct. 29.