Businesses frustrated with West Union construction spent months not knowing where to turn for help

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Businesses on West Union Street in Athens say they’re suffering because of disruptions caused by the major road work underway.

They’re supposed to be able to take their concerns to a community liaison who works for the contractor.

But four months into the nearly nine-month-long project, many business owners said they had no idea who this person was or how to find them.

Athens City Council Member Solveig Spjeldnes, whose ward covers West Union Street, said businesses have asked the city multiple times about the community liaison’s whereabouts.

“The businesses have not gotten that kind of information,” she said. “… I’ll be curious to hear if he’s actually doing anything.”

Frustrations with the project boiled over at the May 6 City Council meeting.

John Gutekanst, owner of The Slice House, expressed just how badly his business is suffering due to the project.

“We’ve lost over $10,000 in the first quarter,” Gutekanst said. “This is disgusting. And I turned to you last time and asked you for help. What did I get? Nothing.”

Kristin Miller, president/CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, brought up the other major issue at hand.

“While I certainly can’t speak for all of the business owners on West Union, I can speak for all of the ones that I’ve spoken to,” she said. “There’s not a single one in this room who has ever met or knows the name of this community liaison.”

City officials said they would look into the issue.

But three weeks later, businesses contacted by WOUB said they still did not have the liaison’s name or contact information.

The exit to Shrivers Pharmacy on West Union Street is blocked while construction workers prepare to lay a curb. [Haley Swaino | WOUB]
A major concern for businesses is blocked entrances and exits that restrict access.

“One of the businesses had employees that were stuck at the business for I think an hour, an hour and a half, because they couldn’t get out of the driveway,” said Ken Oehlers, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Southeast Ohio.

These are the kinds of issues businesses should be able to take up with the community liaison — to share their frustrations and perhaps discuss ways to minimize the disruption.

Oehlers said decreased sales and donations at Habitat’s ReStore are forcing them to cut back on essential services.

“It limits our ability to do additional housing projects at a time where housing and housing issues are at an all-time high,” he said.

Brandon Jackson, supervisor of The Slice House, said they are just trying to keep their doors open for as long as they can.

“Everybody’s losing business, everybody’s hurting, and it seems like they don’t really care,” Jackson said. “That’s how it feels.”

WOUB reached out to Andy Stone, the city’s service-safety director with the businesses’ concerns.

“It is a two-way communication requirement,” he said. “I mean you have to make some effort to go and find the information.”

Stone said there is a community liaison and that businesses should know who it is. He said he didn’t know who the liaison is and referred us to the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.

But they didn’t know either.

Some businesses told WOUB they had reached out to Shelly & Sands, the Zanesville contractor doing the street work, but did not hear back from the company.

A representative of Shelly & Sands told WOUB he would not disclose the liaison’s name to us.

When pressed on how businesses could reach the liaison, the representative said to call the city’s Engineering and Public Works Department.

WOUB did, and was provided the name and phone number of Adam Viney.

Viney told WOUB he was specifically instructed by Shelly & Sands not to do any interviews.

He confirmed that he is the community liaison, as well as the project superintendent.

The city’s contract with Shelly & Sands says the community liaison must be “someone other than the superintendent.”

Stone declined to comment on this apparent conflict.

Shelly & Sands did not respond to multiple calls for comment on this point.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson acknowledged the lack of oversight and communication and said the city could have done a better job.

“It was a major issue on both Shelly and Sands part and also on our part for not getting Adam Viney or whomever out there earlier and often,” he said. “I don’t have the full details as to where the choke was on all this, but it’s clear from this process that it has been a major issue.”