Local businesses are feeling the strain of a years-long construction project that has all but overtaken North Atherton Street between Park Avenue and West Aaron Drive, causing heavy traffic, blocked business entrances and water and electricity shut-offs.
The North Atherton Street project, planned and executed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, began with utility relocation in 2017 and started in earnest in March of this year. An Oct. 11 press release from PennDOT said the construction will continue through 2019 “with phased work zones stretching from Aaron Drive to Park Avenue.”
A Snappy’s convenience store and gas station on North Atherton Street closed earlier this month, citing problems with the construction.
Michele Crowl, executive director of the Discovery Space of Central PA, said the construction has caused several issues for the non-profit children’s science museum, which relocated to North Atherton Street a little over a year ago.
“It’s great that State College is growing, but yeah, we’re lucky that we have a back entry to the parking lot,” she said, referencing the entrance on West Cherry Lane.
Early on in the construction, PennDOT crews were directing traffic through Discovery Space’s parking lot.
“That was the hardest,” said Crowl.
Several exhibits have been disrupted due to construction as well. The Marine Life exhibit, which will feature a touch tank, saltwater, starfish and sea stars that children will be able to handle, has been put on hold because construction knocked the electricity out a few times. The museum had to close on a Friday morning in September — one of the most highly trafficked times — because the water was shut off for repairs. The water has gone out at least two or three times due to construction, said Crowl.
Discovery Space has started holding a new event once a month in the evening, after construction has finished for the day. The first was an ice cream with liquid nitrogen-making party.
“We do know that people aren’t coming out to this part of town because of construction,” said Crowl. Though PennDOT has been helpful and understanding through the construction process, she said, “We’ll be happy when it’s over.”
At Penang Asian Fusion Restaurant across the street, manager Kiko Chen said her biggest frustration is when construction crews close off the front entrance to her parking lot. She said she found a quick fix in allowing customers to enter through the “back entrance,” which is shared with and owned by Joel Confer Toyota and BMW. But after a Joel Confer employee told her that her customers could no longer enter through the back, Chen felt frustrated.
“If they can’t get in the front and they can’t get in the back, how can I make business?” she said.
Over the summer, Penang saw so little business that it had to close on Wednesdays. But with a new Penn State school year in session, Chen said there is a bright spot.
“Some people (are) very nice and they still want to come,” she said.
Monika Manter, the owner of Balfurd Dry Cleaners at 1223 N. Atherton St., said her business has felt the strain of the ongoing construction.
“We’re down a lot at this location,” she said. “Our entrance was blocked like a day and a half this week.”
Manter believes her business is fortunate because they have a second location in downtown State College, and they offer free pick-up and delivery for customers not willing to brave the North Atherton Street traffic and construction. But some loyal customers have been forced to park next door at Penang or The Original Waffle Shop and walk to Balfurd to pick up their dry cleaning when the entrance is closed.
Ferguson Township Manager David Pribulka said that though traffic patterns have been affected by the construction, he has heard few complaints since the summer of 2017 when PennDOT was doing utility relocation. Douglas Shontz, communications specialist for the Borough of State College, also said “we’re hearing a lot less complaints this year.”
Both Pribulka and Shontz attributed the decrease in complaints to better communication about the project between PennDOT, the municipalities and their residents. They said communications coordinators have been getting more media out and working with PennDOT to provide the latest updates. “I believe it has had a more positive effect on people’s behavior” and schedules, said Pribulka.
Mark Maney, the PennDOT project inspector for the North Atherton Street project, said the projected completion date is Oct. 18, 2019. Construction will stop on Dec. 15 for a winter shutdown and restart in March 2019.