TOMS RIVER – Did an off-shore drilling ban save businesses along the Route 166 corridor? Maybe.
Ann Gauthier, owner of Shut Up and Eat! on Main Street in Toms River had to close her business April 16, when ongoing road construction on routes 166 and 37 blocked her driveway. Her business has been open for 13 years, and that Monday was the first time she ever had to close (aside from the four holidays she takes every year). She closed early the next two days.
That Monday, Gauthier said she called the governor’s office, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Toms River Police Department, Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher’s office and media. The police did send out an officer, but ultimately said they could not remedy the situation as the roadwork is on state, not township, roads.
Gauthier told Jersey Shore Online that News 12 New Jersey visited Thursday, and while the camera crew was there, the construction workers cleared their cones and barriers, but not because of the cameras. Simply, they were done with their work on that section and just moved along to the next section of curb and road.
Her business has been down 20 percent since the road work started, now more than a year ago. Business is down even more this year, she said. And state officials estimate the work won’t be finished until at least November.
“I have strongly suggested work be done during evening and night hours when more can get done and it’s also safer for the workers and the public. Also, the business people have been urging the work be done at night,” Freeholder Joseph Vicari said in an email to Jersey Shore Online.
A spokesman from the state Department of Transportation said the department “will continue to balance the need to complete this project in a timely fashion while minimizing the impacts to local businesses. The Department understands and shares the desire from the community to see this project completed, and is working with the contractor and local officials to explore ways to do so in a manner that allows the work to be done safely, with the highest degree of quality, and in the most timely and efficient manner.”
Gauthier said she can’t recuperate lost business: the person who would come in Monday and order two eggs isn’t going to come in Tuesday and order four.
“I’m getting more and more aggravated,” Gauthier told the freeholders at a recent meeting. “I’m aggravated that the mayor’s office didn’t call me back, not that he has anything to do with it, but he could have come down and shook my hand…No one from the township has come to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do anything.’ Say nothing. Just show up. Nothing from the DOT. The governor’s office was very nice to me, it was like free therapy. They told me nothing. I just babbled, like I’m doing now. I don’t know if any of you can help me.”
“I share the frustration,” Ryan Blumenthal, owner of Corinne Jewelers on Route 166, said at the meeting. He said about two years ago the sidewalks were ripped up in front of his storefront. “And if you were to tell me that today, that I’d be standing here with the road project not even close to being done, that we’re possibly another year out, another 18 months out, I just wouldn’t believe you.”
He said that even though it’s a state project, those in the community who are affected should have a say in the project’s progress. He looks out his store’s window and sometimes for a week or two, sees no construction workers working on the road.
“I will do whatever it is in my power to do that, along with the other business owners along that street, and I would ask [the freeholders] to look out for our business community on that road,” Blumenthal said. Not only do the businesses provide jobs and tax revenue, they are intimately involved in the community, donating money, time and goods for those in need.
“Businesses can only take so much, as you all know,” Blumenthal said. And while he understands that road construction happens, the length of time this project has stretched is unreasonable.
Freeholder Vicari had sent a letter to the governor, asking that the state “get the job done” or provide some alternative to help with traffic in the upcoming summer months, the busiest in the county.
The state has been working on drainage, utility, milling and pavement improvements, since its announcement in March 2016.
Governor Phil Murphy was in Point Pleasant Beach April 20 to sign a bi-partisan bill to block energy drilling off the Jersey shore. Vicari said he was also in Point Pleasant Beach and managed to get some one-on-one face time with the governor. The governor had another appointment to keep but sent one of his staff to accompany Vicari to the construction. They parked at Corinne Jewelers and spoke to them there, and Larry Schuster, who owns the car wash, then drove across the street to speak with Gauthier, who Vicari said gave a very descriptive, “direct and unfiltered” story of how bad it is. The trip was very eye-opening, the freeholder said. The governor’s official was to report to him at 2 p.m. April 20.
“They recognized there is a problem,” Vicari said. He believes the governor will now work to speed up the construction. “They do recognize for the first time there is a hardship, and something needs to be done.”
At the most recent Toms River Township Council meeting, Council President Brian Kubiel illustrated how the construction had impacted these businesses. ShopRite and Corinne Jewelers have reported a loss in revenue.
Schuster’s Car Wash had its water turned off without warning, which effectively shut them down, he said.
The entrances to the shopping center where the Office Lounge is located were closed, he said. They also broke a sewer pipe which caused the restaurant to temporarily shut down.
He wanted the Board of Public Utilities to investigate the construction. He also said the state should reimburse the business owners for their losses.
“Governor Murphy, take control of the situation,” Kubiel said.
Jersey Shore Online reached out to the governor’s office several times. At press time, his communications office had only directed the news organization to contact the DOT, which was not a part of the meeting between Vicari and Murphy.
Whatever happens, Gauthier is here to stay.
“Oh hell no, I’m not going anywhere.”
– Chris Lundy contributed to this story.