Business owners in a small shopping plaza on Cleveland Avenue, U.S. 41 in Fort Myers, finally got a bit of relief Friday after months of being marooned from potential customers by a construction project that makes their stores difficult to reach.

Crews from Ajax Paving arrived at Sungold Plaza at mid-morning Friday and began the work of paving an entrance that will enable cars to get onto Hanson Street and the parking lots of a couple of shopping areas along Cleveland Avenue.

Paving trucks arrived after frustrated merchants conveyed their frustration at the work that makes access to their businesses difficult enough to drive away customers.

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The contractor was ordered by the state Department of Transportation to the plaza in the 2960 block of Cleveland Avenue after The News-Press conducted a series of interviews and videotaped conversations with frustrated merchants.

The DOT project will lead to Cleveland Avenue being repaved from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard downtown to Winkler Avenue, a 2.5-mile stretch.

Buried water and sewer pipes have been replaced as part of the project, requiring digging trenches principally on the west side of US 41. Digging up and replacing pipes, sometimes using outdated city location maps, has been slow, laborious and devastating for small businesses. 

Small business owners discouraged and desperate 

Sole proprietor shopkeepers detailed difficult-to-avoid financial straits inflicted by the double blows of slow work on the road and the coronavirus pandemic keeping customers home.

John Morreale, a cobbler who works the shoe repair business on Cleveland Avenue started by his Sicilian immigrant father more than 40 years ago, says he has been nearly destroyed financially.

Morreale says he has fallen months behind on his rent.

“Corona, I would say, it’s not doing much to us now. It’s more the roads, being able to get in and out of here,” he said. “It has just been so difficult, and it has just been a nightmare the whole time we have been here. It really has.”

The shoe repair shop moved to the Sungold Plaza three years ago. The plaza is one of several strip malls and businesses along the path of the paving project.

The problems run up and down the route of the project. There are problems crossing from one side of the road to the other to reach a store and problems at curbside in finding exactly where to turn.

Left turns, whether to stores or side streets, require potential customers to drive several blocks to find an opening in the center-road barricades to turn around.

The daring motorist who gets to the desired side of the road must then hope the curbside opening to the requisite parking lot can be recognized in time to make the turn.

If not, the alternative is another ride down the street. Plan B is going somewhere else.  

Milton Penney, who runs a shop that provides wholesale products to barbers, doesn’t have the steady stream of retail customers. Instead, he sells a lot of product to a few individual buyers.

He can’t afford to lose any of them.

“They’ve got to go way up the road to turn around. Some lose their way, and they drive away,” Penney said. “I’m ready to quit right now. I’m ready to sell the business right now. Very discouraging.”

Down the strip in the same plaza, past what was once a Greek food store but is now an empty storefront, Stephane Foreste, a French immigrant, operates a store specializing in Caribbean food.

Foreste said the problems have gone beyond getting the customers inside the store. Having the goods to sell is also a problem.

“It’s hard for trucks to make deliveries of more inventory. Some companies don’t have the equipment to do it,” he said.

“Sometimes (suppliers) have to give me a small truck,”  he said. “Others can only give me a 16-wheeler — it is impossible —  so I have to drive to their location.” 

The sudden, and unannounced, appearance of a paving crew came as a surprise Friday morning. 

Foreste said he walked out his door and saw the Ajax paving equipment, asked to see the person in charge and started in with questions. 

“She told me she is the project manager. They’ve heard that some of the owners are complain(ing) and they want to at least free this path. But I said, ‘It’s been over a year,'” Foreste said.

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Paving the entrance to Hanson Street and then to the only entrance to the plaza is not the sort of small job Ajax is known for doing.

“She told me they only come for a project that is 400 tons and this one is only 60,” Foreste said. 

Businesses on the west side of US 41 have been feeling most of the impact because the work has included replacement of pipes in front of businesses.

An Ajax  supervisor on-site, Charlie McLeaf, said the company was told by state transportation agency officials to make the repair to Hanson Street. 

“We got the call Tuesday and are out today (Friday) to get this paved so they can get in and out,” he said. “We’ll take out those barriers (in the middle of the road) Monday and they’ll be able to turn right in.”

Morreale said is worried that even repaving will not end confusion over finding the right driveway.

“I don’t know whether to cry or jump up and down,” Morreale said. “How are you supposed to pay attention to the road and follow all these little blue signs that tell you where to go? Because that’s all they give you. People go around two or three times and say, ‘Screw the shoe guy.'”

The project began in 2018. It includes repaving Cleveland Avenue, improving traffic signals and street appearance and replacing some service pipes.

Contractors are required to make sure the water supply to  Lee Memorial Hospital is not disrupted as water mains are swapped out.

Merchants say they have reached points of desperation.

“It is hurting me badly, badly, badly, badly — harming me … people are not interested to come here because they have go down to the hospital to turn around, and the street is very busy,” said MD Rahman, owner of a shop that specializes in selling Halal meat, prepared according to Islamic law. 

Foreste says he can’t help but believe that the social standing and immigrant status of the owners of small specialty stores is a factor in the difficulties that have developed.

“If it was McGregor where you have all the wealthy, white people, and I’m sorry to use that, but blatantly that is what it is, where you have older, white, wealthier people, where you have Publix,” he said. “They don’t (care) because it’s ethnic people here … Really don’t give two penny about these ethnic people.”

An FDOT spokesman said the project was on schedule, but will take until the summer of 2022 to complete, after work shifts to the opposite side of the road..

‘Cleveland Avenue is so big, and we don’t have much money’

State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, whose district includes the affected area, said he has not heard complaints from merchants in the area, which he has only represented since last year’s election.

“We have these small businesses that are particularly disrupted when you’ve got major projects like this going on,” Rodrigues said. “I don’t know if the bureaucracy understands the depths of that sometimes.”

The affected area lies in the Community Redevelopment Agency’s jurisdiction. CRA Executive Director Michele Hylton-Terry told the Fort Myers City Council last month that she has been trying to work out a plan to help the businesses in the area deal with the coronavirus and the construction issues.

Hylton-Terry said Monday that the size of the Cleveland Avenue area and the funds available to the redevelopment agency make developing a program challenging.

“Cleveland Avenue is so big, and we don’t have much money,” Hylton-Terry said.

The Cleveland Avenue redevelopment area runs from Edison Avenue to Boy Scout Road at the city limits and has four sub-areas. Some businesses may already be eligible for a program that helps businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once a program has been designed for businesses impacted by the FDOT reconstruction of U.S. 41, a two step political process will be needed to put it into effect. First a recommendation must come from the CRA advisory board and then approval of the city council, sitting as the CRA Board of Commissioners, which meets Wednesday.

The advisory board won’t meet until June 2 so the earliest a program could be put together is the middle of or late June. 

Some of the merchants in the Cleveland Avenue stretch that also lost business because of the pandemic may be eligible for some help

“There is a program that provides assistance, up to $10,000. This is for businesses that can show that they have had devastation (from COVID-19) and they can show it,” Hylton-Terry said “The program has to go to the advisory board, which is next week.”

The CRA board meeting is at 9 a.m. Wednesday, May 26 in the city council chamber at Fort Myers City Hall.  

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