Surviving scaffolding: How to cope with construction

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After years of hosting pop-up shows, the nomadic artist collective Common Folk raised enough money to settle down in retail space along Main Street featuring two display windows for local art.

Day one in December saw a lively celebration and people coming in off the street to check out the new store for its grand opening.

Things changed dramatically on day two.

When co-founder Jessica Sweeney went to open for the day, she couldn't believe her eyes. The windows bursting with artwork and the shop's sign were hidden behind a wall of scaffolding and tarps.

"We did this whole window display, it was really beautiful, and the next day, scaffolding," Sweeney said.

Construction equipment remained on-site for months while the Blackinton Block facade was restored. The circa 1890 building is home to Common Folk, Ramunto's Brick Oven Pizza and an Edward Jones investment branch office, as well as other businesses and apartments.

For a while, things seemed bleak, and business was slow.

"When I look back, I was worried we weren't making enough for rent," Sweeney said. "If it went on for much longer, I was thinking about advocating for a rent break."

Many downtown business owners have found themselves in similar circumstances or are facing these challenges. Whether it's on the street or in a building, construction-related interruptions can temporarily sap a company's revenue.

Local business owners and economic developers interviewed for this article said construction is a necessary and beneficial part of community growth, while also acknowledging the struggle of attracting customers.

In Berkshire County, some cities and large towns have their staff work with affected businesses to promote awareness of open shops during construction. There are also measures a business owner can take to help herself, said local business owners and development officials.

Common Folk survived sidewalk obscurity by tapping into its established 100-member collective. People spread the word about the shop's opening and events to friends, family and the online community.

"It's a double-edged sword," Sweeney said of building improvements. "I'm glad the owner cares enough about the building to make repairs — that's important and it will affect us positively. ... We were lucky to have so much community engagement."

Once the scaffolding was removed this spring, Sweeney said Common Folk saw an immediate increase in customer traffic and sales.

"I don't have any doubt that it had an effect," Sweeney said of the scaffolding. "People saw us, and the interest went up."

Would you go?

Data on how road and building work affect a business is not readily available. People expressed mixed views when interviewed about construction outside Dottie's Coffee Lounge on North Street in Pittsfield, where scaffolding dominated the building's exterior until recently.

Keith Stringer, of Pittsfield, said he'll never patronize a store with an entrance covered by scaffolding — he feels it's too dangerous.

"I tend not to walk under things like that, even though they look steady," he said. "I personally don't trust them."

There's some truth to his concern. Scaffolding can be dangerous, but mostly to laborers. Scaffold-related accidents lead to 4,500 injuries and 60 worker deaths across the United States per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In nearly three-fourths of accidents, workers were injured when the planking or support gave way, or the employee slipped or was struck by a falling object. Data on pedestrian-scaffolding accidents wasn't available.

But the potential for falling objects doesn't faze Shari Foucher, an information technology business analyst for the city.

"If I've decided to go someplace, I'm going in," she said.

Scott Hunter, of Pittsfield, said he walks North Street every day. The scaffolding doesn't bother him, but he sees the effects on businesses.

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"I've definitely seen less traffic around here," Hunter said while puffing a cigarette on the sidewalk. "How could this not affect things?"

Pittsfield Community Development Specialist Laura Mick said the multiphase Downtown Streetscape Project, to improve North and South streets, helped shape the city's outreach to businesses.

The worst thing a business owner can do during a period of construction, it seems, is to quietly continue forward.

"Effective communication is key," Mick said. "We realize this poses a challenge, and we've got to do all we can to help each other through it."

Mick said Pittsfield has assisted business owners by sending out weekly project updates and keeping sidewalks accessible to pedestrians.

What to do

In Berkshire County right now, nowhere might be dealing with more noise, dust and inconvenience of construction than Great Barrington.

As part of a state-funded renovation project, some downtown streets, sidewalks and parking areas are being upgraded. The work affects Railroad, Elm, School and Church streets, as well as part of Bridge Street. Some days, parking is available on the street, some days it's not.

Town Planner Christopher Rembold estimated that street paving and sidewalk work should be completed by July. Great Barrington is committed to keeping businesses bustling during construction, he said.

"The town tries to work very closely with businesses to understand their needs and schedules, to minimize disruption and to maintain access to the businesses during construction periods," Rembold said in an email to The Eagle.

To endure construction-related interruptions, area business owners and economic developers had some advice:

Be informed. Make it a point to look at municipal meeting calendars and read legal notices for information about upcoming construction-related hearings. Most large projects require some type of permitting from town hall or city hall, and often that necessitates a public hearing. By attending meetings and voicing concerns early, business owners might be able to influence the outcome.

Have a cash reserve. Easier said than done, but if a business owner is aware that a large construction project is scheduled a year in advance, it would be wise to start a nest egg.

Build an alliance. If construction is affecting multiple businesses, it might be beneficial for the owners to come to a consensus about how to advertise during construction and advocate, with one voice, for local business needs.

Customer loyalty. Start a customer loyalty program to collect contact information and reward returning patrons. Use the contact information to speak directly to top customers and entice them with a sale, giveaway or some other perk that might get people walking through the door.

Update website/Facebook page. If people have questions about a store during construction, they are likely to search for the answers online. Make sure to have the information available and easy to find, and update people on the status of the project.

Construction mitigation. Some large projects include plans to help businesses survive extended construction. The rural Berkshires is unlikely to have many downtown construction projects that rise to this level of need, but it's worth getting in touch with town hall or city hall to learn if there are any available services.

Reduce staff and inventory. Temporary reductions might be necessary, depending on the type of business.

Signs. Installing extra signs can be invaluable to show people how to access a store obscured by construction.

Make friends with the contractors. Get the project manager's contact information, if possible.

Offer delivery.

Upon completion of a construction project, Mick said, business owners should celebrate the work.

"It's important to keep in mind that you should thank people for their patience and understanding," she said. "Now, let's celebrate the success."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @kristinpalpini.


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