Constant construction 'pretty bad' for uptown Waterloo, says restaurateur

Businesses in uptown Waterloo tried to think positive thoughts when road construction started three years ago, but restaurateur Nick Benninger says things have become pretty bad for many businesses. City Coun. Melissa Durrell has called for a moratorium on all road work in uptown in 2018.

City councillor calls for moratorium on all road work in uptown in 2018

Nick Benninger mans the grill at the new Harmony Lunch in uptown Waterloo. Benninger owns four restaurants in the uptown area and says three years of road work is taking its toll on businesses. (Harmony Lunch/Facebook)

Nick Benninger wants to remain positive.

But the owner of four restaurants in uptown Waterloo says three years of road work in the city's core is taking its toll on businesses.

"It's become pretty bad," Benninger told host Craig Norris on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition Tuesday.

Benninger said three years ago, businesses went into the long-term construction with optimism. They knew things would be better once it was all done.

"We were all for it, no one really stood against it. No one really saw maybe how awkward and how uncomfortable it would get over time, myself included," he said.

"I knew there'd be loss of business, but the little things you think of like delivery routes and garbage pickups and water shutoffs, and it's really an endless list of things that can pop up and interrupt business in one way or another."

He said there was little to no communication about when fences would be moved or water would be shut off, and times when he planned special events only to then arrive at work to discover the restaurant didn't have any running water.

"That was the big thing … let me know when my water's going to be shut down with more advance notice," he said.

A long table for a unique dining experience. Beach volleyball. Restaurant owner Nick Benninger says there have been a number of creative solutions to help businesses weather long-term construction in uptown Waterloo, but nothing was implemented. Now, he says, it's too late for some businesses. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Hard to keep up with changes

Benninger — the owner of Taco Farm, Uptown 21, Marbles, and Harmony Lunch — called for a meeting with officials from the region and the Uptown Waterloo BIA. He planned for it to be at the currently closed Uptown 21 restaurant, just so he could show officials how difficult it is to navigate the area.

He said as they were making their way to the restaurant for the meeting, he met a family of three generations who had just left a neighbouring coffee shop.

"To their dismay, the fences had moved since they went inside to get coffee. So they came out and grandma was like, 'Whoa, where do we go,'" he said.

The family had parked across the street and had to now figure out how to get back to their car.

"It's just so hard to keep up with," he said.

'Lack of compassion'

No one was excited for the construction, but Benninger said they thought they knew what they were in for.

"I don't want to sound too negative, but there's been a sort of lack of compassion, it feels like, on the region's side when it comes to helping us get through this and really listening to our thoughts and concerns," he said.

And Benninger is not alone. Many businesses are frustrated with the construction. On Monday night, a rally was held at the corner of King Street and Bridgeport Road, where uptown Coun. Melissa Durrell called for a full moratorium on all road construction in uptown for 2018.

"Let uptown breathe," Durrell said.

She noted the region announced Monday the original 14 weeks of construction for the uptown revitalization project jumped to 24.5 weeks.

That will push construction work into 2019.
The uptown Waterloo BIA launched a lawn sign campaign that aims to get more people to shop in uptown Waterloo during the ongoing challenge of construction. (Uptown Waterloo BIA/Twitter)

Uptown businesses 'vulnerable'

Durrell said a group of business owners are calling for plan they dubbed "Uptown Always Open."

They asked for:

  1. A commitment from the region, with new resources and funding, so that all uptown customers can get to each and every business easily.
  2. A commitment to move this project ahead by working seven days a week.
  3. All construction projects in Uptown to be re-evaluated and a moratorium on all construction next year.

"We all believe in a vibrant and active uptown core. But this is it. We are so vulnerable after three years of construction," Durrell said in a statement sent to CBC News.

"We want to see the Region of Waterloo hear us and fight for us to get this project managed properly, back on track, and complete."

The Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area has launched campaigns encouraging people to brave the construction in uptown and shop local. "I Choose Local" lawn signs have popped up in the city, festivals and events have continued. There are updates on the BIA's website, including a note for visitors that, "Pedestrian detours change frequently."

But still businesses say they are suffering.

Benninger said he isn't sure if taking a break from construction will help. And, he said, unfortunately the time for creative solutions is long overdue.

We were all for it, no one really stood against it. No one really saw maybe how awkward and how uncomfortable it would get over time.- Uptown Waterloo restaurateur Nick Benninger

"The creative solutions really needed to start in 2015. We should have seen this coming," he said.

Creative solutions could have included using the torn up roads for beach volleyball or even a dinner in the upturned street, he said.

"Anything now is a Band-Aid. And there will be no bailouts, there will be no magic envelope of money that comes to replace the losses," he said. "There's been jobs lost. There's been businesses lost."

He added it's getting harder for many business owners to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"If you're just a coffee shop … it's hard to tell someone my product's unique enough, come see me anyway," he said.

"It's become really frustrating."


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