ASHLAND — Some downtown Plaza businesses are seeing a drop-off in customers as the Plaza undergoes a major reconstruction, leading store owners to worry that customers think that the area is closed off or that parking isn't available.
"We have empty parking spaces," said Bea Gilliam, owner of Ashland Mountain Supply on the Plaza, noting that business is slow. "I don't know if it's the noise of the construction or what."
She said the Plaza reconstruction is having a negative impact.
"It's been not good at all for business," Gilliam said.
After getting a suggestion from a merchant, the city of Ashland posted a sign facing Main Street that states that businesses are open during construction.
Workers' vehicles and equipment have occasionally taken up some parking spaces that encircle the Plaza, but many parking spaces still remain available in the area and in the rest of downtown Ashland, merchants said.
At Renaissance Rose on the Plaza, sales associate Tracey Howard said January is a slow month anyway, so it's hard to tell if business is down because of the reconstruction project or because of the time of year.
Howard said businesses will have a better gauge of the project's impact when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season launches in February.
The season opens on Feb. 15.
City Administrator Dave Kanner said the project is scheduled to be completed on March 22. He is sending out regular emails to merchants updating them on the progress of the project and letting them know what to expect in coming days.
"The advantage is that they're not caught by surprise and they are able to answer their customers' questions," Kanner said.
On Monday, contractor Ausland Group will begin using nine parking spaces along the Plaza as a staging area for construction, Kanner said.
The parking spaces and the short segment of street that they are on lie closest to Main Street.
That segment of street will be closed to the public, but other street segments — and their parking spaces — that surround the center Plaza island will remain open, Kanner said.
Rogue Valley-based Ausland Group is tasked with work that includes pouring concrete and installing lighting, pavers and wells for tree roots.
At Tree House Books on the Plaza, Co-owner Jane Almquist said the city has been doing a good job keeping merchants posted on construction activities.
She said it was disruptive that the project started in December during the holiday shopping season.
The city had also scheduled Plaza tree removal for Dec. 21, a busy holiday shopping day, but changed the date to Dec. 28 after merchants protested.
However, many people were still out shopping in the days after Christmas, Almquist said.
One Plaza merchant who asked not to be named said January has been a quiet month.
"I don't know what to attribute it to," she said. "It could be because of the construction. People don't know what the situation is. Customers have called asking if there's parking. Parking is open. People have the idea that they can't come down here."
The $187,900 reconstruction project involves removing trampled lawn areas and older trees and replacing them with more resilient landscaping and trees.
The surface under people's feet will have pavers that allow rainwater to soak through, and low concrete walls will protect landscaping while doubling as seating areas.
Benches will be installed into the concrete walls and an abstract public art mosaic by Ashland artist Sue Springer is planned.
Several historic features on the Plaza, including the Iron Mike pioneer statue and lithium-laced water fountains, will remain.
The Plaza reconstruction has been a controversial subject, with some people lamenting the removal of large trees and lawn areas, as well as the addition of concrete walls that they say are too modern for Ashland's historic downtown.
Others have said the Plaza was looking scuffed up and trampled, and the changes will make it more resilient to the high use it endures.
Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.