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FRAMINGHAM

Roadwork has shops laboring to stay afloat

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2010

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When Jennifer Porter looks at the imminent closure of Framingham institution Gerard Farms, she can’t help but feel panicked about her own family business, the 52-year-old River’s Edge Garden Center that her parents started.

“In all the years we’ve been here, we’ve never had a year where we didn’t do better than the previous year. It may have been a half percent but we were always able to hold our own,’’ said Porter. “This year, with the road construction, it nearly killed me. . . If it happens again, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’’

No one in Framingham disputes that the $160 million in infrastructure repairs that have ripped up the town’s roads have been a major detriment to the local quality of life, with detours and delays the frustrating norm.

But for business owners, the work means much more than an annoyance. It often means the difference between getting or losing a customer, and day after day, missed sale after missed sale, the losses add up. Some are wondering whether their businesses can survive.

Framingham officials say they are doing everything they can to help the businesses but they’re bound by a state Department of Environmental Protection order that says sewer and water improvements need to be done by 2014. Officials add that if business owners can hang on, they will have modern infrastructure and great roads to serve their needs.

But counting time in years is meaningless for businesses like Gerard Farms on Water Street. The 80-year-old kitchen and deli business, known especially for its turkey dinners, is set to close after it serves a final Thanksgiving next week.

Owner Michael Gerard,49, said the lunch crowd he has relied on to buoy his business stopped arriving when the trip to his location on the north side of Framingham from the town’s big employers like TJX and Bose started taking 20 minutes each way. The money coming in isn’t enough to pay his expenses, he said.

Jeff Underwood, owner of Robinsons Hardware in Water Street’s Pinefield Shopping Center, won’t say whether the store is in danger of closing, but gets choked up when he talks about the challenges it’s facing.

Underwood said he knows the problem isn’t the economy; at the flagship Robinsons in Hudson, sales have remained steady throughout the recession. His Framingham store, which opened seven years ago, is taking in only half the sales it should.

“A lot of people depend on income from this store. It’s very stressful,’’ said Underwood, whose family has owned the hardware business since 1963.

Peter Sellers, head of the town’s Department of Public Works, said his department has tried to minimize the impact of the roadwork by holding public hearings; personally contacting nearby business and property owners, which he estimates to be more than a thousand; setting up a telephone hotline for concerns; scheduling work at night whenever possible; and requiring signs from the project’s contractors to let passersby know that businesses are open.

“We did as much public info outreach as we could. I think people understood that construction was coming but I’m not sure they understood the extent of it,’’ he said.

Framingham was ordered by the state in 2007 to replace its aging sewer and water lines, said Sellers. The post-World War II development boom in the town’s Nobscot and Saxonville neighborhoods has for decades strained capacity, causing raw sewage during rainstorms to overflow into wetlands and the Sudbury River, he said.

“If you were to drive through that northeast quadrant of town, you’d find subdivision after subdivision after subdivision,’’ Sellers said. “Framingham’s spurt in growth was no different than what you’d see in Natick or Wellesley or Ashland. In Framingham’s case, it was very concentrated.’’

But for decades, the town did not approve major funding for infrastructure upgrades, he said.

“Infrastructure is critical and it’s important. But unfortunately, it’s been deferred maintenance. Eventually it’s going to catch up to you,’’ said Alison Steinfeld, director of the town’s Community and Economic Development Division. “It’s going to be difficult for a few more years but we’ll support our businesses as much as we can.’’

There are other ongoing projects in Framingham. Downtown is getting new water and sewer lines in anticipation of road redevelopment in the area.

Underwood said he recognizes town officials are doing the best they can under the circumstances, but feels existing Framingham businesses are being sacrificed for future economic development.

Still, he said, “There’s no crying over spilled milk. We’ve got to move forward.’’

Sellers said the work on Water Street will wrap up next summer, and the DPW is committed to working with Porter to minimize the disruptions to the River’s Edge Garden Center during the greenhouse operation’s short season, April to July.

Porter appreciates the town’s willingness but is still worried since she knows disruption is inevitable.

“It’s been incredibly emotional because it’s my livelihood,’’ said Porter. “It’s just very sad. I just don’t want to be the next casualty. I know how some of the other businesses are hurting.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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