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Interchange work hits businesses

PHOENIX — Businesses inside the Ray's Shopping Center acknowledge that the commercial climate in Phoenix wasn't exactly brisk before groundbreaking for a $72 million reconstruction of the Fern Valley Interchange on Interstate 5.

Loss of their business center sign, however, along with a recent increase in construction activity along Highway 99, has hurt business more than expected. The center sits at the west end of Fern Valley Road where it intersects Highway 99.

Analise Ramirez, whose family owns Joe's Restaurant, said a lane closure or rerouting of traffic can make or break the restaurant's sales on any given day.

Tucked on the southerly side of Ray's Food Place along with a Purple Parrot, five vacant storefronts, a veterinary clinic, salon and deli, Joe's opened the summer before the interchange project began.

While the eatery sees some business from construction activities, Ramirez said, the family hopes for improved stability for the restaurant when the project is complete, while worrying about the fate of neighboring business owners who regularly talk of lost business and possible closures.

"We opened right as the construction was about to start, so we haven't been able to feel it be busy without the construction, but there have also been a lot of days where it's been extra hard," she said.

"This entire week they've had this lane closed off, so we'll have maybe 20 tables all day, when we're open 12 hours!"

Ramirez said customers regularly comment about difficult access to the businesses and other construction woes.

City leaders say they anticipated businesses would be affected and are trying to address business needs created by the project.

Projects planned for the area by the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency, Mayor Jeff Bellah said, will be done in conjunction with the interchange project to avoid lengthening the amount of time the area is under construction.

Glenn Archambault, co-owner of Exclusively Cats veterinary clinic next to Ray's, said in his 25 years at the shopping center he's never seen so many vacancies or so few cars in the retail center.

Archambault said it's tough to accept that the completion of the interchange — slated for fall 2016 — is still more than a year away, according to Oregon Department of Transportation schedules.

"Years ago, before this all started, they said they would put signs to help businesses, but they haven't done much, and when you drive right up to Ray's you can barely find any of the businesses," he said.

With a vacancy on either side of his cat clinic, Archambault pointed to five vacancies near his clinic and half a dozen in a smaller strip mall behind nearby Jack In The Box.

"Many of us that have been in the shopping center for a long time had signs on the Ray's sign for the shopping center that they tore down for the road — ODOT purchased it for eminent domain. If you walk around and look at how many places are empty, it's just really startling," he added.

"If Ray's were to close, the shopping center would be over. No way is Ray's covering the overhead for that store with as few cars as we're seeing in the parking lot. Are they building this great big road to nowhere, for businesses that won't survive its construction?"

Ray's Phoenix store was initially listed to be closed when the Oregon-based company announced in November 2013 it would shutter 16 of its 60 stores, but later was taken off the closure list.

ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said state highway officials are sympathetic to business owners and working to ensure access to businesses remains open during business hours. Leaming said ODOT officials delayed work to the Highway 99 area, at request of the city, to minimize impact to businesses.

"There are going to be impacts from construction, but at the same time the shopping center still has access," Leaming said. "In fact, it's been a priority. Many of businesses have their names on a little fingerboard sign and access has not been compromised.

"We understand that signs are important, but other projects have marketed to construction traffic and taken advantage of traffic. The bottom line is that this agency doesn't ever close business access unless we pay for it or it's at nighttime when places aren't open."

Bellah said city officials were pleased with efforts by ODOT and contractors to minimize impact to business owners.

"So far, we've had very few complaints. I've heard about a couple people with some minor issues, but I think people have been kind of resigned to the fact that it's going on but that it's going to be much better after it's completed," Bellah said.

Jeff Rodgers, an agent for John L. Scott's commercial real estate division, which is handling properties on the site, sympathized with businesses while acknowledging the bigger picture.

"It's been tough there with the construction," Rodgers said. "There's absolutely no question it's affected us, but that's a struggle we all have to wait through.

"For the owners of the commercial properties, it puts us in a tough spot. We were definitely getting more showings before than we are now. We all understand what's in the works, and we just have to keep reminding ourselves that it's going to be a lot better than it was when it's finished."

Ramirez of Joe's Restaurant agreed.

"I think everyone agrees that they're making it better — and it's going to be great for the area when it's finally done," she said. "It's just really tough to deal with while it's all going on."

Bellah said business owners with sign or access issues are encouraged to contact the city at 541-535-1955.

Project updates are posted online at www.oregon.gov/odot/hwy/region3/pages/fvi_index.aspx.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Analise Ramirez, who works at her family's business, Joe's Restaurant, in Phoenix, says business has slowed significantly since the start of the Fern Valley Interchange project. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Vacant buildings are a concern for tenants in the Ray's Shopping Center near the Fern Valley Interchange. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch