Road construction across the state is being delayed as the North Carolina Department of Transportation faces substantial funding shortfalls.
The impact in Moore County is significant — but in some cases welcomed by businesses. Local leaders learned last week that the $27.8 million road fix on U.S. 1 and U.S. 15-501, set to begin next year, has been put on hold for at least five years.
Aaron Moody, with the DOT communications office, said the suspension impacts preliminary engineering work on projects still in the early phase of development.
For business owners along these two commercial corridors, the news was somewhat of a mixed blessing. Congestion on the two main commercial arteries will inevitably get worse over the next few years, but postponing work means more time to potentially refine the design or adopt interim steps that may improve flow and safety.
The DOT’s scope of work for U.S. 1 and 15-501 in Southern Pines and Aberdeen amounts to a radical re-imagining of the roads. The design intent is to minimize accidents and maximize traffic flow. But town officials and business owners have expressed concerns over the past couple of years that the work, when completed, would make it far more difficult for motorists to reach destinations on the opposite sides of the roads.
Witness to Change
William Dean, owner of Flowland Counter-Culture Outlet in Aberdeen, is a bit of an unwitting expert when it comes to road planning and construction impact on local businesses.
When DOT announced plans in the early 2000s to update the Morganton Road bridge over U.S. 1, Dean lost parking spots and road frontage for his two businesses — Flowland and the Lunchbox That Rocks restaurant — located at the time in an aging strip mall just east of the bridge.
Work began in earnest on overpass bridge in November 2013, and was completed months ahead of schedule, in mid-2014.
However, heavy construction at his doorstep had already taken its toll. By September 2014, of the nine storefronts in the immediate area, only a pawn shop and Dean’s restaurant remained open.
These days that same strip mall is completely vacant. Depending on the eye of the beholder, it is an outdated eyesore or prime real estate ripe for redevelopment in the growing South Broad area of Southern Pines.
Most of the other local businesses near the bridge followed Dean’s lead and moved to other spots around town.
His quirky Lunchbox That Rocks restaurant didn’t do as well on U.S. 1, but Dean’s larger retail space for Flowland, also on this busy highway across from Texas Roadhouse in Aberdeen, has flourished.
And instead of dreading the massive reconstruction that will add hard medians and restricted turns on the highway in front of his shop, Dean said he approved of the project’s design.
“I was welcoming it. It gets pretty busy here and we have had several accidents from cars trying to come into our property,” Dean said.
He’s witnessed at least four or five accidents in the past year alone. Most were caused by cars cutting across traffic from the center turning lane, rather than people trying to exit onto the highway from his business parking lot.
“It’s a little disappointing to see this has been pushed off. What will happen when they decide to do something four or five years from now? Traffic is an issue for sure,” Dean said.
Reflecting back on the Morganton Road bridge project, he readily admits that the road construction and design “killed that corner.”
“They took 10 parking spaces based on the right-of-way. That hurt our businesses immediately. And then during the construction time, we really suffered as well,” he said, “It really put that corner out of business.”
But he views congestion on U.S. 1 as a business challenge as well, and that he’s lost customers as a result.
“I know people who avoid U.S. 1 as it stands now because of all the congestion. In the five years we’ve been here, it has only gotten worse,” Dean said.
“The construction will be the nightmare part of this project. With barriers up it will get worse before it gets better,” he added. “But, afterwards, when it is finished it will be great.”
Tourism, Traffic and Timelines
State Sen. Tom McInnis, whose district includes Moore County, announced the revised timeline for what many call the “super street” projects last week.
Based on the recent uptick in storms damaging North Carolina roads, DOT’s funding challenges, and the need to relocate an 18-inch water transmission line from U.S. 1 to Poplar Street — an unexpected development discovered earlier this year — McInnis said the decision was made to err on the side of caution.
The intent is to hold off on the major work on the commercial corridors until after the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open and 2024 U.S. Open golf championships come and go from Pinehurst.
“We need to make sure we don’t have construction going on during a time when Moore County is being showcased to the world,” said McInnis, who co-chairs the Senate’s Transportation and Transportation Appropriations committees.
Tourism is one of the largest industries in Moore County, he added, and “We need to make sure we protect it, guard it, enhance it and expand it at every opportunity.”
Phil Werz, president and CEO of Moore County’s Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) approved of the decision.
“The infrastructure that is in place already in Pinehurst has been very efficient,” he said. “It is better that they wait and let’s get through these major events.”
In his experience and based on data collected from visitor surveys, Werz said area traffic has not been a priority concern.
“All of our feedback is more or less about the golf courses and the quality of the visitor experience,” he said. “But we are growing and there are some growing pains with being a growing destination.”
In the Meantime...
Since inception, the super street road project has generated considerable discussion and no lack of angst from business owners, residents and officials concerned about the short and long term impact of the changes.
The scope of the project extends on U.S. 15-501 from U.S. 1 to Brucewood Road; and on U.S. 1 from Old Route 1 to Roseland Road.
Construction was set to begin next year and was expected to take approximately 2.5 years to complete, except for a small section on U.S. 1 closest to downtown Aberdeen where construction had already been delayed until 2027.
Aberdeen Mayor Robbie Farrell said the new project timeline could provide an opportunity for more refinement of what many view as an “over-engineered” road fix. And, equally important, time enough to conduct an economic impact study of how the project affects local businesses.
From the beginning, Farrell has expressed concern that the proposed construction period could force small businesses to close, and potentially create sprawl if larger big box businesses look elsewhere.
“A super street has never been done in a highly developed corridor. With the growth in Moore, we cannot have this disrupting commerce,” Farrell said.
Pat Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress and the county’s lead economic development officer, agreed the delay might offer time to consider alternatives.
“I think we all saw this summer how a minimal disruption on Midland Road and U.S. 1 (new roundabout construction) could create incredible headaches from a traffic standpoint,” he said. “Now imagine if both U.S. 1 and 15-501 are under construction, and perhaps work on Highway 5 too.”
Corso said there is no question that something needs to be done, but recommended an alternative plan may be necessary.
“Things like limiting left turns, things that could buy time would be good,” he said. “And breaking the project into smaller chunks. Why not do one project, say only 15-501, and get that out of the way before starting on U.S. 1?”
He suggested rather than the tactical approach in place, the towns and DOT could work on a more strategic or comprehensive approach that includes all of the area’s compounding factors.
“We are very lucky to have Brandon Jones (DOT Division 8 engineer) to help us work through this. He is very familiar with the community and he is respected by everybody,” he said.
“I think Brandon is the perfect individual for us to work with through these solutions and opportunities,” Corso added. “I see in this delay that there is an opportunity that can come out of this.”
Other Businesses Weigh In
At the corner of U.S. 15-501 and Murray Hill Road, Pinehurst Toyota kicked off its own massive construction project last year to build an expanded showroom and service area. The dealership is part of Pinehurst Auto Group which also owns and manages Pinehurst Nissan, Kia, and Pinehurst Hyundai on U.S. 15-501 and Southern Pines Select Pre-Owned Supercenter on U.S. 1.
Chad Holderfield, general manager of Pinehurst Toyota, said he supported DOT’s decision to postpone the super street project until after the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open and 2024 U.S. Open have concluded.
“Measure twice and cut once,” Holderfield said.
“Quite frankly we were never paranoid the road project would greatly affect our business in a negative way, but there is always apprehension,” he said. “Especially when the people it is affecting have very little input into it.”
Holderfield said he expects other local business owners feel the same way.
Looking ahead, he said they are thrilled with the way the new showroom building is coming along and they are on track for a late November move-in date.
“We think the new building will greatly enhance our customer experience as well as our associates,” he said.
Frank Butler, co-owner of the McDonald’s restaurant franchise in Aberdeen, said DOT’s delay was “a positive decision on their part for me.”
Butler has been a vocal opponent of the super street project, particularly where plans call for restricting Johnson Street, between U.S. 1 and U.S. 15-501, to one-way traffic. This design limits access in-and-out of the McDonald’s parking lot.
“They are changing it to one way for the one block that goes by the restaurant. Delaying work means taking away that negative impact for four more years,” he said. “I view that as a positive result.”
Butler noted that traffic backs up on Johnson Street, prompting cars exiting the restaurant on U.S. 1 to cut across traffic coinciding with the nearby traffic light. The new super street design will prohibit such maneuvering, which will further limit convenient access.
Pat Minyon, owner of Jersey Mike’s restaurant in the Center Park Shopping Center in Aberdeen, near Harris Teeter, has also been frustrated by the super street design limitations.
“I’ve given DOT ideas of more fiscally responsible options than what they have proposed. But no matter how much we try to bring our concerns to their attention, they were resolved to do it how their engineers wanted to do it,” Minyon said.
He has spoken with many business owners who are losing road frontage or access based on the super street design.
“How do you tell a business owners that we are taking away one of your access points? Then have the audacity to say we have a better way?” he said. “There are other options with better lighting, better road marking, that would be a heck of a lot cheaper and less disruptive to businesses.”
“But what can we do? We have to grin and bear it, and see how it goes,” Minyon added.
In Aberdeen, dentists Sheena Patel and her husband, Kevin, purchased the Dogwood Family Dental clinic on U.S. 1 in early 2018. The couple have been steadily working to build their patient base, and also recently welcomed a son to their family.
“Any construction when it is happening in front of our business is going to impact us,” Sheena said, noting they had been working closely with DOT right-of-way staff to determine the best location for a truck turnaround planned near their office.
But Patel said she also recognizes that a dentist clinic is considered more of a destination for traffic, versus gas stations and fast food restaurants where customers are looking for easy access when making their decision where to stop.
Commercial real estate brokers Holly Bell and George Manley, of Bell Manley Properties, said there are pros and cons to DOT’s decision.
“That suicide lane down the middle we all turn into is scary,” Bell said. “But maybe with the delay, it will give them a chance to make sure they have the right plan.
“But the delay does mean more uncertainty,” she added.
Manley said most of their business clients along the busy commercial corridor will likely appreciate the continued access due to the delay, but said it’s important to keep in mind the road project will still be moving forward.
“The change will happen,” he said, “and we need to be ready for it when it comes.”