City’s bumbling threatens local businesses

By Dan Ping

Paulii Buster has invested tens of thousands of dollars to turn a vacate space on Sanford Avenue into a sleek, modern Belgium beer pub that regularly draws customers from outside of Sanford — including players from the Orlando City Soccer Club.

When the city of Sanford’s Downtown Waterfront Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) announced it would spend $2.5 million to reconstruct Sanford Avenue to upgrade utilities, widen sidewalks, and enhance lighting and landscaping, Buster knew his business, Buster’s Bistro, would suffer and he made plans to mitigate the construction.

He never thought the work would virtually shut off access to his pub.

Last week city officials informed Buster and other business owners along Sanford Avenue that beginning in March the road would be completely closed for up to four months — about two months from 3rd Street to 6th Street, and another two months from 1st to 3rd streets. That was news to Buster and other business owners.

Sanford Ave“We were told from the beginning that at least one lane would remain open throughout construction,” says Buster. The closure will not only curtail traffic, he says, but the blockades on side streets will severely limit parking for those customers who actually overcome the traffic obstacles. 

The city’s project manager, Robert Beall says the construction plan always called for closing the street. However, CRA Chairwoman Maria Shreve says she never thought the street would be closed for extended periods of time. Neither did Sanford Economic Development Director Bob Turk.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

From the earliest stages, this project has been riddled with miscommunication. The city put the project out for bid twice because of problems with the original bid process. Once the bid was awarded, the contractor, Stage Door II Inc., waited more than 30 days to begin work. 

The reason? 

The company thought the city’s Sept. 3, 2013 groundbreaking ceremony was the actual start date, despite receiving a notice to proceed on July 31. Why city staff failed to notice that Stage Door II was not mobilizing heavy equipment for more than a month is a mystery. 

Then in January, city staff asked City Commission to approve about $150,000 in change orders for the project because some key utility items had not been included in the published bid request. Paul Moore, the city’s utility director, included the items in his scope of work for the project and even set aside money in his budget to pay the contractor, but the city purchasing department failed to put that information in the bid package.

At the same January meeting, staff asked the commission to extend Stage Door II’s deadline from April 3 until the first part of June, in part because the contractor did not start on time. Even then the project won’t be completed. Beall says the company has been granted an additional 38-day extension because of unforeseen problems — unmarked and abandoned utilities, for example. So realistically the project won’t be complete until the middle of July, or maybe later if Stage Door II accrues more extension days.

Adding to the city’s blunders is the fact that Stage Door II has had three different project superintendents on the job — including one whose background is residential construction. It’s a wonder any progress has been made at all.

At this point, the screw-ups can’t be undone, and it’s likely that the four months of road closures can’t be avoided. That does not give the city a pass, however, to continue to bumble through the rest of this project at the expense of the business owners on Sanford Avenue. City Manager Norton Bonaparte and the CRA should take the following actions: 

  • Direct Bob Turk to personally visit those businesses and formulate a plan on how the city can mitigate some of these construction issues. What kind of message does it send to businesses Turk is trying to recruit to Sanford when existing businesses are suffering because of the city’s missteps?
  • Launch an awareness campaign about the project and the affected businesses. What is the weekly progress or latest detours? Has the deadline been extended yet again? Where can people park if they want to visit the local businesses?
  • Assist with marketing or subsidizing events sponsored by the Sanford Avenue businesses during construction. There is precedent for such action. The successful Alive After 5 event on 1st Street was originally launched as a way to bring people downtown when the street was closed for reconstruction.
  • Erect lights along the construction zone. The only way for people to get to businesses when the road is closed is to walk. Yet the few streetlights that were on Sanford Avenue are inoperable because of construction. For six months, people have stumbled along the uneven sidewalks and road crossings in the dark. 

These, of course, are starting points. The city manager and CRA members are welcome to think of other ways to help these businesses. Shreve, for one, is adamant about taking some action.

“We’ve got to do what we can to help those businesses,” she says.

Paulii Buster is optimistic the city will get its act together. I’m not sure why. As if he doesn’t have enough issues, the city’s code enforcement department recently threatened to fine Buster because he hung a Belgium flag in front of his business to attract customers during the construction.

Somebody at city hall needs to fix this. Now.

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